A mechanistic investigation of Pickering emulsion polymerization

Emulsion polymerization is an important industrial production method to prepare latexes. Polymer latex particles are typically 40-1000 nm and dispersed in water. The polymer dispersions find application in wide ranges of products, such as coatings and adhesives, gloves and condoms, paper textiles and carpets, concrete reinforcement, and so on.

Conventional emulsion polymerization processes make use of molecular surfactants, which aids the polymerization reaction during which the particles are made and keeps the polymer colloids dispersed in water.  We, and others, introduced Pickering emulsion polymerization a decade ago in which we replace common surfactants with inorganic nanoparticles.

In Pickering emulsion polymerization the polymer particles made are covered with an armor of the inorganic nanoparticles.  This offers a nanocomposite colloid which may have intriguing properties and features not present in conventional "naked" polymer latexes.

To fully exploit this innovation in emulsion polymers, a mechanistic understanding of the polymerization process is essential. Current understanding is limited which restricts the use of the technique in the fabrication of more complex, multilayered colloids.

In our paper, recently published in Polymer Chemistry, clarity is provided through an in-depth investigation into the Pickering emulsion polymerization of methyl methacrylate (MMA) in the presence of nano-sized colloidal silica (Ludox TM-40). Mechanistic insights are discussed by studying both the adsorption of the stabiliser to the surface of the latex particles and polymerization kinetics. The adhesion of the Pickering nanoparticles was found not to be spontaneous, as confirmed by cryo-TEM analysis of MMA droplets in water and monomer-swollen PMMA latexes. This supports the theory that the inorganic particles are driven towards the interface as a result of a heterocoagulation event in the water phase with a growing oligoradical. The emulsion polymerizations were monitored by reaction calorimetry in order to establish accurate values for monomer conversion and the overall rate of polymerizations (Rp). Rp increased for higher initial silica concentrations and the polymerizations were found to follow pseudo-bulk kinetics.

The paper can be read here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C7PY00308K