Block Copolymer Derived Porous Carbon Fiber for Energy and Environmental Science

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Virginia Tech


As the world population grows, a persistent pressure on natural resources remains. Resource requirements have extensively expanded due to industrialization. Several technological advancements continually aim to alleviate these resource shortages by targeting existing shortcomings in effective and efficient material design. Practical, high-performing, and economical materials are needed in several key application areas, including energy storage, energy harvesting, electronics, catalysis, and water purification. Further development into high-performing and economical materials remain imperative. Innovators must seek to develop technologies that overcome fundamental limitations by designing materials and devices which address resource challenges. Carbon serves as a versatile material for a wide range of applications including purification, separation, and energy storage owing to excellent electrical, physical, and mechanical properties. One-dimensional (1D) carbon fiber in particular is renowned for excellent strength with high surface-to-volume ratio and is widely commercially available. Although an exceptional candidate to address current energy and environmental needs, carbon fibers require further investigation to be used to their full potential. Emerging strategies for carbon fiber design rely on developing facile synthetic routes for controlled carbon structures. The scientific community has shown extensive interest in porous carbon fabrication owing to the excellent performance enhancement in separation, filtration, energy storage, energy conversion, and several other applications. This dissertation both reviews and contributes to the recent works of porous carbon and their applications in energy and environmental sciences. The background section shows recent development in porous carbon and the processing methods under investigation and current synthetic methods for designing porous carbon fibers (PCF). Later sections focus on original research. A controlled radical polymerization method, reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT), enabled a synthetic design for a block copolymer precursor, poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) and polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The block copolymer (PMMA-b-PAN) possesses a unique microphase separation when electrospun and develop narrowly disperse mesopores upon carbonization. The PMMA and PAN domains self-assemble in a kinetically trapped disordered network whereby PMMA decomposes and PAN cross-links into PCF. The initial investigation highlights the block copolymer molecular weight and compositional design control for tuning the physical and electrochemical properties of PCF. Based on this study, mesopore (2 – 50 nm) size can be tuned between 10 – 25 nm while maintaining large surface areas, and the PAN-derived micropores (< 2 nm). The mesopores and micropores both contribute to the development of the unique hierarchical porous carbon structure which brings unprecedented architectural control. The pore control greatly contributes to the carbon field as the nano-scale architecture significantly influences performance and functionality. The next section uses PCF to clean water sources that are often tainted with undesirable ions such as salts and pollutants. Deionization or electrosorption is an electrochemical method for water purification via ion removal. I employed the PCFs as an electrode for deionization because of their high surface area and tunable pore size. Important for deionization, the adsorption isotherms and kinetics highlight the capacity and speed for purification of water. I studied PCF capacitive filtration on charged organic salts. Because PCF have both micropores and mesopores, they were able to adsorb ions at masses exceeding their own weight. The PFC adsorption efficiency was attributed to the diffusion kinetics within the hierarchical porous system and the double layer capacitance development on the PCF surface. In addition, based on the mechanism of adsorption, the PCFs showed high stability and reusability for future adsorption/desorption applications. The PCF performance as an electrosorption material highlights the rational design for efficient electrodes by hierarchical interconnected porosity. Another application of PFCs is updating evaporative desalination methods for water purification. Currently distillation is not widely used as a source of potable water owing to the high cost and energy requirement. Solar desalination could serve as a low-cost method for desalination; however, the evaporation enthalpy of water severely limits practical implementation. Here I apply the pore design of PCF as a method for water nano-confinement. Confinement effects reduce water density and lowers evaporation enthalpy. Desalination in PCF were studied in pores < 2 nm to 22 nm. The PCF pore size of ~ 10 nm was found to be the peak efficiency and resulted in a ~ 46% reduction in enthalpy. Interestingly, the PCF nano-confinement also contributed to the understanding in competing desorption energy for evaporation in micropores. The pore design in PCF also shows confinement effects that can be implemented in other environmental applications. Lastly, the block copolymer microphase morphology was explored in a vapor induced phase separation system. The resulting PCF properties showed a direct influence from the phase separation caused by nonsolvent. At low nonsolvent vapor, a disordered microphase separation occurred, however upon application of nonsolvent vapor, the polymer chains reorganized. The reorganization initially improved mechanical properties by developing more long-range ordered graphic chains in the PAN-derived carbon. However, at higher nonsolvent vapor concentrations, the fibers experienced polymer precipitation which resulted in bead and clump formation in the fiber mats. The beads and clumps lowered both mechanical properties and electrochemical performance. The vapor induced phase separation showed a method for enhancing mechanical properties without compromising electrochemical performance in flexible carbon fibers.



Porous carbon, block copolymer, electrospinning, RAFT polymerization, supercapacitors, deionization, solar desalination, flexible electronics