Polymer-Grafted Cellulose Nanocrystals as pH-Responsive Reversible Flocculants
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Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) are a sustainable nanomaterial with applications spanning composites, coatings, gels, and foams. Surface modification routes to optimize CNC interfacial compatibility and functionality are required to exploit the full potential of this material in the design of new products. In this work, CNCs have been rendered pH-responsive by surface-initiated graft polymerization of 4-vinylpyridine with the initiator ceric(IV) ammonium nitrate. The polymerization is a one-pot, water-based synthesis carried out under sonication, which ensures even dispersion of the cellulose nanocrystals during the reaction. The resultant suspensions of poly(4-vinylpyridine)-grafted cellulose nanocrystals (P4VP-g-CNCs) show reversible flocculation and sedimentation with changes in pH; the loss of colloidal stability is visible by eye even at concentrations as low as 0.004 wt %. The presence of grafted polymer and the ability to tune the hydrophilic/hydrophobic properties of P4VP-g-CNCs were characterized by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, elemental analysis, electrophoretic mobility, mass spectrometry, transmittance spectroscopy, contact-angle measurements, thermal analysis, and various microscopies. Atomic force microscopy showed no observable changes in the CNC dimensions or degree of aggregation after polymer grafting, and a liquid crystalline nematic phase of the modified CNCs was detected by polarized light microscopy. Controlled stability and wettability of P4VP-g-CNCs is advantageous both in composite design, where cellulose nanocrystals generally have limited dispersibility in nonpolar matrices, and as biodegradable flocculants. The responsive nature of these novel nanoparticles may offer new applications for CNCs in biomedical devices, as clarifying agents, and in industrial separation processes.
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