Branching (polymer Chemistry) - Branching in Radical Polymerization

Branching in Radical Polymerization

In free radical polymerization, branching occurs when a chain curls back and bonds to an earlier part of the chain. When this curl breaks, it leaves small chains sprouting from the main carbon backbone. Branched carbon chains cannot line up as close to each other as unbranched chains can. This causes less contact between atoms of different chains, and fewer opportunities for induced or permanent dipoles to occur. A low density results from the chains being further apart. Lower melting points and tensile strengths are evident, because the intermolecular bonds are weaker and require less energy to break.

The problem of branching occurs during propagation, when a chain curls back on itself and breaks - leaving irregular chains sprouting from the main carbon backbone. Branching makes the polymers less dense and results in low tensile strength and melting points. Developed by Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta in the 1950s, Ziegler-Natta catalysts (triethylaluminium in the presence of a metal(IV) chloride) largely solved this problem. Instead of a free radical reaction, the initial ethene monomer inserts between the aluminium atom and one of the ethyl groups in the catalyst. The polymer is then able to grow out from the aluminium atom and results in almost totally unbranched chains. With the new catalysts, the tacticity of the polypropene chain, the alignment of alkyl groups, was also able to be controlled. Different metal chlorides allowed the selective production of each form i.e., syndiotactic, isotactic and atactic polymer chains could be selectively created.

However there were further complications to be solved. If the Ziegler-Natta catalyst was poisoned or damaged then the chain stopped growing. Also, Ziegler-Natta monomers have to be small, and it was still impossible to control the molecular mass of the polymer chains. Again new catalysts, the metallocenes, were developed to tackle these problems. Due to their structure they have less premature chain termination and branching.

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