Enhancing the toughness of composites via dynamic thiol–thioester exchange (TTE) at the resin–filler interface†
Due to a mismatch in mechanical moduli, the interface between constituent materials in a composite is the primary locus for crack nucleation due to stress concentration. Relaxation of interfacial stresses, without modifying the properties of constituent materials, is a potent means of improving composite performance with broad appeal. Herein, we develop a new type of adaptive interface that utilizes thiol–thioester exchange (TTE) at the filler–polymer interface. Specifically, dynamic covalent bonds sequestered at material interfaces are reversibly exchanged in the presence of thioester moieties, excess thiol and a base/nucleophile catalyst. Employing this active interface effectively mitigates deleterious growth of interfacial stresses, thereby enhancing the composite's mechanical performance in terms of reductions in polymerization shrinkage stress and improvement in toughness. Activating interfacial TTE in an otherwise static matrix resulted in 45% reduction in the polymerization stress, more significant post-polymerization stress relaxation and drastically increased toughness relative to control composites incapable of TTE bond exchange but otherwise identical. In particular, the higher fracture toughness in TTE-activated composites is attributed to the alleviation of crack tip strain concentration, as revealed by digital image correlation.