Accelerating dynamic exchange and self-healing using mechanical forces in crosslinked polymers†
Dynamically crosslinked polymers and their composites have tremendous potential in the development of the next round of advanced materials for aerospace, sensing, and tribological applications. These materials have self-healing properties, or the ability to recover from scratches and cuts. Applied forces can have a significant impact on the mechanical properties of non-dynamic systems. However, the impacts of forces on the self-healing ability of dynamically bonded systems are still poorly understood. Here, we used a combined computational and experimental approach to study the impact of mechanical forces on the self-healing of a model dynamic covalent crosslinked polymer system. Surprisingly, the mechanical history of the materials has a distinct impact on the observed recovery of the mechanical properties after the material is damaged. Higher compressive forces and sustained forces lead to greater self-healing, indicating that mechanical forces can promote dynamic chemistry. The atomistic details provided in molecular dynamics simulations are used to understand the mechanism with both non-covalent and dynamic covalent linkage responses to the external loading. Finite element analysis is performed to bridge the gap between experiments and simulations and to further explore the underlying mechanisms. The self-healing behavior of the crosslinked polymers is explained using reaction rate theory, with the applied force proposed to lower the energy barrier to bond exchange. Overall, our study provides fundamental understanding of how and why the self-healing of cross-linked polymers is affected by a compressive force and the force application time.