SAXS studies of the thermally-induced fusion of diblock copolymer spheres: formation of hybrid nanoparticles of intermediate size and shape†
Dilute dispersions of poly(lauryl methacrylate)–poly(benzyl methacrylate) (PLMA–PBzMA) diblock copolymer spheres (a.k.a. micelles) of differing mean particle diameter were mixed and thermally annealed at 150 °C to produce spherical nanoparticles of intermediate size. The two initial dispersions were prepared via reversible addition–fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) dispersion polymerization of benzyl methacrylate in n-dodecane at 90 °C. Systematic variation of the mean degree of polymerization of the core-forming PBzMA block enabled control over the mean particle diameter: small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) analysis indicated that PLMA39–PBzMA97 and PLMA39–PBzMA294 formed well-defined, non-interacting spheres at 25 °C with core diameters of 21 ± 2 nm and 48 ± 5 nm, respectively. When heated separately, both types of nanoparticles regained their original dimensions during a 25–150–25 °C thermal cycle. However, the cores of the smaller nanoparticles became appreciably solvated when annealed at 150 °C, whereas the larger nanoparticles remained virtually non-solvated at this temperature. Moreover, heating caused a significant reduction in mean aggregation number for the PLMA39–PBzMA97 nanoparticles, suggesting their partial dissociation at 150 °C. Binary mixtures of PLMA39–PBzMA97 and PLMA39–PBzMA294 nanoparticles were then studied over a wide range of compositions. For example, annealing a 1.0% w/w equivolume binary mixture led to the formation of a single population of spheres of intermediate mean diameter (36 ± 4 nm). Thus we hypothesize that the individual PLMA39–PBzMA97 chains interact with the larger PLMA39–PBzMA294 nanoparticles to form the hybrid nanoparticles. Time-resolved SAXS studies confirm that the evolution in copolymer morphology occurs on relatively short time scales (within 20 min at 150 °C) and involves weakly anisotropic intermediate species. Moreover, weakly anisotropic nanoparticles can be obtained as a final copolymer morphology over a restricted range of compositions (e.g. for PLMA39–PBzMA97 volume fractions of 0.20–0.35) when heating dilute dispersions of such binary nanoparticle mixtures up to 150 °C. A mechanism involving both chain expulsion/insertion and micelle fusion/fission is proposed to account for these unexpected observations.
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