Engineered PP impact copolymers in a single reactor as efficient method for determining their structure and properties
Impact polypropylene (PP) copolymers (IPCs) are important materials for many commercial applications. These materials are usually synthetized through different methods involving two consecutive reactions in the same phase or in different phases. Here, a laboratory-scale synthesis method based on a sequential liquid- and gas-phase two-step process in a single reactor is developed. Propylene homopolymers and IPCs were synthesized with varying amounts of comonomers and hydrogen. The IPC materials obtained were fully characterized via analytical temperature rising elution fractionation (TREF), differential scanning calorimetry (DSC), 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (13C NMR), gel permeation chromatography with an infrared detector (GPC-IR5), Charpy impact, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and cross-fractionation chromatography (CFC). The addition of only ethylene to the second step in the absence of hydrogen led to the creation of an ethylene-propylene (EP) copolymer with similar impact strength to that of a propylene homopolymer. The addition of hydrogen to the first step dramatically shortened the length of the PP chains and inhibited catalytic active centers that led to EP copolymer synthesis. This material exhibited very low molecular weight, low ethylene incorporation, and rubbery phases irregularly distributed along the isotactic polypropylene (iPP) matrix, resulting in the formation of an EP copolymer material with poor impact properties. IPCs synthesized without hydrogen and with a 50/50 (v/v) mixture of propylene/ethylene monomers in the second step enhance ethylene incorporation, facilitating adequate homogeneous and heterogeneous ethylene distribution and resulting in a high increment of amorphous ethylene-propylene-rubber (EPR) domains, which remarkably improves impact properties. Additionally, a criterion based on the ratio between EEE and EPE + PEP triads ranging between 1 and 2 was also established to predict the impact resistance of any heterophasic PP. Fractionation of the optimal sample provided a detailed understanding about the microstructure of this copolymer through the study of the molecular weight and composition of the fractions via GPC-IR, analytical TREF, and DSC measurements. Finally, the liquid–gas-phase two-step IPC material was compared, by means of SEM and CFC measurements, with synthesized IPC using liquid–liquid-phase two-step polymerization, and the results showed that the range of EP composition as well as ethylene distribution in the molar mass molecules of the IPCs was correlated to their mechanical behavior. This proves that crystalline families composed of high-molecular-weight EP copolymers in the liquid–gas-phase process can act as a compatibilizing agent between the iPP matrix and the elastomeric rubbery phase, allowing one to improve the impact resistance of the IPC, more so than that of IPCs obtained in the gas–gas and liquid–liquid phases. The results indicate that the synthesis of IPC resins in a single reactor is an efficient experimental method for fundamental research on IPCs.
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