Nearly monodisperse silica microparticles form in silicone (pre)elastomer mixtures.
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The formation of silica from a tetraalkoxysilane in a sol-gel process usually requires a highly polar, typically aqueous, medium that aids in the hydrolysis of the silane and leads to electrostatic stabilization of the growing silica particles. Formation of such silica particles in a hydrophobic medium is much more challenging. We report the formation of silica microspheres within silicone oils (hydroxy-terminated poly(dimethylsiloxane), HO-PDMS) during elastomer cure using atmospheric humidity in a one-pot and one-step synthesis. Using tetraethyl orthosilicate (TEOS) as both cross-linker and silica precursor, and aminopropyl-terminated dimethylsiloxane oligomer (AT-PDMS) as a catalytic surfactant, silica particles of low polydispersity formed near or at the air interface of the elastomer: the presence of a hydrophilic polymer, poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG), had an indirect effect on the particle formation, as it assisted with water transmission into the system, which resulted in particle formation over a wider range of parameters and facilitated silicone elastomer cure further away from the air interface. Depending on the relative humidity during cure, the sizes of particles presenting at the air interface varied from ~6-7 μm under ambient conditions (20-30%RH) to ~7-9 μm at high relative humidity (90% RH). The origin of the controlled particle synthesis is ascribed to the relative solubility of the catalyst and the efficiency of water permeation through the silicone matrix. AT-PDMS preferentially migrates to the air interface, as shown by ninhydrin staining, where it both catalyzes alkoxysilane hydrolysis and condensation, and stabilizes the growing silica particles prior to aggregation. Since reactions in the presence of this catalyst are slow, TEOS can migrate from within the pre-elastomer body to the interface faster than water can penetrate the silicone, such that the main locus of hydrolysis/condensation leading both to silica formation and elastomer cross-linking is at the air interface.
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