Self-Healing Iron Oxide Polyelectrolyte Nanocomposites: Influence of Particle Agglomeration and Water on Mechanical Properties

Self-healing nanocomposites can be generated by organic functionalization of inorganic nanoparticles and complementary functionalization of the polymer matrix, allowing reversible interactions between the two components. Here, we report on self-healing nanocomposites based on ionic interactions between anionic copolymers consisting of di(ethylene glycol) methyl ether methacrylate, sodium 4-(methacryloyloxy)butan-1-sulfonate, and cationically functionalized iron oxide nanoparticles. The materials exhibited hygroscopic behavior. At water contents < 6%, the shear modulus was reduced by up to 90%. The nanoparticle concentration was identified as a second factor strongly influencing the mechanical properties of the materials. Backscattered scanning electron microscopy and small-angle X-ray scattering measurements showed the formation of agglomerates in the size range of 100 nm to a few µm in diameter, independent of concentration, resulting in the disordering of the semi-crystalline ionic polymer blocks. These effects resulted in an increase in the shear modulus of the composite from 3.7 MPa to 5.6 MPa, 6.3 Mpa, and 7.5 MPa for 2, 10, and 20 wt% particles, respectively. Temperature-induced self-healing was possible for all composites investigated. However, only 36% of the maximum stress could be recovered in systems with a low nanoparticle content, whereas the original properties were largely restored (>85%) at higher particle contents.