Chemical and Physical Modifications of Semicrystalline Gels to Achieve Controlled Heterogeneity
Sulfonated polyaromatic hydrocarbon membranes have emerged as desirable candidates for proton exchange membranes (PEMs) due to their excellent mechanical properties, high thermal and chemical stability, and low cost. Specifically, sulfonated multiblock copolymers are attractive because their phase-separated morphologies aide in facile proton transport. In this work, the functionalization of semicrystalline gels of poly(ether ether ketone) (PEEK) is explored as a novel post-polymerization method to prepared blocky copolymers, and the effect of copolymer architecture on membrane physical properties, structure, and performance is extensively investigated. First, the blocky sulfonation of PEEK was explored to prepare blocky copolymers (SPEEK) with densely sulfonated domains and unfunctionalized, crystallizable domains. Compared to random SPEEK ionomers at similar ion content, blocky SPEEK exhibited enhanced crystallizability, decreased melting point depression, and faster crystallization kinetics. Phase separation between the hydrophilic sulfonated blocks and hydrophobic PEEK blocks, aided by polymer crystallization, resulted in enhanced water uptake, superior proton conductivity, and more closely associated ionic domains than random SPEEK.
Furthermore, the random and blocky bromination of PEEK was investigated to prepare PEEK derivatives (BrPEEK) with reactive aryl-bromides. Spectroscopic evidence revealed long domains of unfunctionalized homopolymer for blocky BrPEEK, and this translated to an increased degree of crystallinity, higher melting temperature, and more rapid crystallization kinetics than random BrPEEK at similar degrees of bromination. The subsequent sulfonation of blocky BrPEEK resulted in a hydrophilic-hydrophobic blocky copolymer with clear multi-phase behavior. The phase-separated morphology contributed to decreased water uptake and areal swelling compared to random SPEEK and resulted in considerably higher proton conductivity at much lower hydration levels. Moreover, Ullmann coupling introduced superacidic perfluorosulfonic acid side chains to the BrPEEK backbone, which yielded membranes with less water content and less dimensional swelling than random SPEEK. Superior proton transport than random SPEEK was observed due to the superacid side chain and wider hydrophilic channels within the membranes, resulting in more continuous pathways for proton transport.
Overall, this work provided a novel platform for the preparation of functionalized PEEK membranes using a simple post-polymerization functionalization procedure. The established methods produced blocky-type copolymers with properties reminiscent of multiblock copolymers prepared by direct polymerization from monomers/oligomers.