Synthesis and Characterization of Hydrophobic-Hydrophilic Multiblock Copolymers for Proton Exchange Membrane Applications

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Virginia Tech

Proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) have been extensively studied as clean, sustainable and efficient power sources for electric vehicles, and portable and residential power sources. As one of the key components in PEMFC system, proton exchange membranes (PEMs) act as the electrolyte that transfers protons from the anode to the cathode. The state-of-art commercial PEM materials are typically based on perfluorinated sulfonic acid containing ionomers (PFSAs), represented by DuPont's Nafion®. Despite their good chemical stability and proton conductivity at high relative humidity (RH) and low temperature, several major drawbacks have been observed on PFSAs, such as high cost, high fuel permeability, insufficient thermo-mechanical properties above 80°C, and low proton conductivity at low RH levels. Therefore the challenge lies in developing alternative PEMs which feature associated ionic domains at low hydration levels. Nanophase separated hydrophilic-hydrophobic block copolymer ionomers are believed to be desirable for this purpose Three series of hydrophobic/hydrophillic, partially fluorinated/sulfonated multiblock copolymers were synthesized and characterized in this thesis. The hydrophilic blocks were based upon the nucleophilic step polymerization of 3, 3′-disulfonated, 4, 4′-dichlorodiphenyl sulfone (SDCDPS) with an excess 4, 4′-biphenol (BP) to afford phenoxide endgroups. The partially fluorinated hydrophobic blocks were largely based on 4, 4′-hexafluoroisopropylidenediphenol (6F-BPA) and various difluoro monomers (excess). These copolymers were obtained through moderate temperature (~130-150°C) coupling reactions, which minimize the ether-ether interchanges between hydrophobic and hydrophilic telechelic oligomers via a nucleophilic aromatic substitution mechanism. The copolymers were obtained in high molecular weights and were solvent cast into tough membranes, which had nanophase separated hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. The performance and structure-property relationships of these materials were studied and compared to random copolymer systems. NMR results supported that the multiblock sequence had been achieved. They displayed superior proton conductivity, due to ionic, proton conducting channels formed through the self-assembly of the sulfonated blocks. The nano-phase separated morphologies of the copolymer membranes were studied and confirmed by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS). Through control of a variety of parameters, including ion exchange capacity and sequence lengths, performances as high, or even higher than those of the state-of-the-art PEM, Nafion®, were achieved.

Another series of semi-crystalline hydrophobic poly(ether ether ketone)-hydrophilic sulfonated poly(arylene ether sulfone) (PEEK-BPSH100) multiblock copolymers was first synthesized and characterized. However due to their semi-crystalline structure, PEEK blocks are insoluble in most organic solvents at relatively low reaction temperatures, which prevents the coupling reaction between PEEK and BPS100. In order to facilitate the synthesis and processing, removable bulky ketimine was introduced to synthesize amorphous pre-oligomers poly(ether ether ketimine) (PEEKt). The synthetic procedure first involves the synthesis of hydrophobic poly(ether ether ketimine)-hydrophilic sulfonated poly(arylene ether sulfone) (PEEKt-BPS100) multiblock pre-copolymers via coupling reactions between phenoxide terminated hydrophilic BPS100 and fluorine terminated hydrophobic PEEKt blocks. The membranes cast from PEEKt-BPS100 were boiled in 0.5M sulfuric acid water solution to hydrolyze the amorphous PEEKt blocks to semi-crystalline PEEK blocks and acidify BPS100 blocks to BPSH100 blocks simultaneously. FT-IR spectra clearly showed the successful hydrolysis and acidification. The proton conductivity, water uptake and other membrane properties of the acidified semi-crystalline PEEK-BPSH100 membranes were then evaluated and compared with those of the state-of-the-art PEM, Nafion®.

semi-crystalline, partially fluorinated, disulfonated poly(arylene ether sulfone), multiblock copolymers, hydrophobic-hydrophilic, fuel cell, proton exchange membrane