Particle formation in RAFT-mediated emulsion polymerization has been studied using reaction calorimetry. By measuring the heat flow during controlled feed ab-initio emulsion polymerization in the presence of amphipathic RAFT agents, particle formation by self-assembly of these species could be observed. Two different monomer systems, i.e. styrene and n-butyl acrylate, and various degrees of hydrophobicity of the initial macro-RAFT agents have been studied and compared.
The different macro-RAFT agents were synthesized by first forming a hydrophilic block of poly(acrylic acid) that would later on act as the electrosteric stabilizing group for the particles. Subsequently, different lengths of hydrophobic blocks were grown at the reactive end of the poly(acrylic acid) hydrophilic block via the RAFT-mediated controlled radical polymerization, either comprised of n-butyl acrylate or styrene.
Two processes govern particle formation: adsorption of macro-RAFT agents onto growing particles and formation of new particles by initiation of micellar aggregates or by homogeneous nucleation. Competition between these processes could be observed when monomers with a relatively high (n-butyl acrylate) or low (styrene) propagation rate coefficient were used.
A model describing particle formation has been developed and the results of model calculations are compared with experimental observations. Preliminary modeling results based on a set of reasonable physico-chemical parameters already showed good agreement with the experimental results. Most parameters used have been verified experimentally.
The development of the molecular weight distribution of the macro-RAFT agents has been analyzed by different techniques. Quantification of the particle formation process by analytical techniques was difficult, but qualitative insights into the fundamental steps governing the nucleation process have been obtained. The amount of macro-RAFT agents initially involved in particle formation could be determined from the increase of molecular weight. The particle size distribution has been measured by capillary hydrodynamic fractionation, transmission electron microscopy and dynamic light scattering. From the data obtained from these particle-sizing techniques, the number of particles during the reaction could be monitored, leading to an accurate estimate for the particle formation time.
Upon implementation of the experimental data obtained for the surface active macro-RAFT systems, the model demonstrated to be very sensitive towards the “headgroup” area of the macro-RAFT species. Three nucleation cases based on the initial surface activity of the macro-RAFT species in the aqueous phase are proposed to explain the deviations from the assumptions of the nucleation model. Even though the macro-RAFT species have a narrow molecular weight distribution, they are nevertheless made up of a distribution of block lengths of polystyrene upon a distribution of block lengths of poly(acrylic acid). The resulting differences in initial surface activity are the most probable reason for the observed differences between model calculations and experimental results for the nucleation time and particle size distribution of the final latex product.
With the procedure described above, latexes have been synthesized without using conventional surfactants and the mechanisms involved in the particle formation for these systems have been elucidated. The results of this work enable production of latex systems with well defined molecular mass distributions and narrow particle size distributions. Furthermore, the technique based on the application of amphipathic RAFT agents is promising for the production of complex polymeric materials in emulsion polymerization on a technical scale.