Vitrimers: directing chemical reactivity to control material properties
The development of more sustainable materials with a prolonged useful lifetime is a key requirement for a transition towards a more circular economy. However, polymer materials that are long-lasting and highly durable also tend to have a limited application potential for re-use. This is because such materials derive their durable properties from a high degree of chemical connectivity, resulting in rigid meshes or networks of polymer chains with a high intrinsic resistance to deformation. Once such polymers are fully synthesised, thermal (re)processing becomes hard (or impossible) to achieve without damaging the degree of chemical connectivity, and most recycling options quickly lead to a drop or even loss of material properties. In this context, both academic and industrial researchers have taken a keen interest in materials design that combines high degrees of chemical connectivity with an improved thermal (re)processability, mediated through a dynamic exchange reaction of covalent bonds. In particular vitrimer materials offer a promising concept because they completely maintain their degree of chemical connectivity at all times, yet can show a clear thermally driven plasticity and liquid behavior, enabled through rapid bond rearrangement reactions within the network. In the past decade, many suitable dynamic covalent chemistries were developed to create vitrimer materials, and are now applicable to a wide range of polymer matrices. The material properties of vitrimers, however, do not solely rely on the chemical structure of the polymer matrix, but also on the chemical reactivity of the dynamic bonds. Thus, chemical reactivity considerations become an integral part of material design, which has to take into account for example catalytic and cross-reactivity effects. This mini-review will aim to provide an overview of recent efforts aimed at understanding and controlling dynamic cross-linking reactions within vitrimers, and how directing this chemical reactivity can be used as a handle to steer material properties. Hence, it is shown how a focus on a fundamental chemical understanding can pave the way towards new sustainable materials and applications.