Main-chain scission of individual macromolecules induced by solvent swelling
We present a comprehensive investigation of main-chain scission processes affecting peripherally charged and neutral members of a class of dendronized polymers (DPs) studied in our laboratory. In these thick, sterically highly congested macromolecules, scission occurs by exposure to solvents, in some cases at room temperature, in others requiring modest heating. Our investigations rely on gel permeation chromatography and atomic force microscopy and are supported by molecular dynamics simulations as well as by electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy. Strikingly, DP main-chain scission depends strongly on two factors: first the solvent, which must be highly polar to induce scission of the DPs, and second the dendritic generation g. In DPs of generations 1 ≤ g ≤ 8, scission occurs readily only for g = 5, no matter whether the polymer is charged or neutral. Much more forcing conditions are required to induce degradation in DPs of g ≠ 5. We propose solvent swelling as the cause for the main-chain scission in these individual polymer molecules, explaining in particular the strong dependence on g: g < 5 DPs resemble classical polymers and are accessible to the strongly interacting, polar solvents, whereas g > 5 DPs are essentially closed off to solvent due to their more closely colloidal character. g = 5 DPs mark the transition between these two regimes, bearing strongly sterically congested side chains which are still solvent accessible to some degree. Our results suggest that, even in the absence of structural elements which favour scission such as cross-links, solvent swelling may be a generally applicable mechanochemical trigger. This may be relevant not only for DPs, but also for other types of sterically strongly congested macromolecules.