Characterization and use of pollen as a biorenewable filler for polymer composites

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Fadiran, Oluwatimilehin Olutayo
Meredith, J. Carson
Shofner, Meisha L.
Ludovice, Peter J.
Deng, Yulin
Koros, William J.
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Fillers are often incorporated in polymer matrices in order to improve cost, mechanical, thermal, and transport properties. This work explores the hypothesis that pollen, a natural particle, has the potential to be an effective biorenewable reinforcing filler due to its unique surface architectures, high strength, chemical stability, and low density. Pollens from sources such as ragweed plants are ubiquitous natural materials that are based on sustainable, non-food resources. Pollen is a remarkable example of evolutionary-optimized microscale particle with structures and/or chemistries tailored for effective adhesion to a variety of surfaces and protection of genetic material under different dynamic and environmental conditions. The pollen shell is perhaps the most chemically resistant naturally occurring material. As many pollens achieve pollination simply by being carried by wind, they are very light-weight. These properties make pollen an attractive option as a natural filler for polymers. This research aims to characterize pollen interfacial properties and utilize pollen as an effective reinforcing filler in polymer materials. In this work, interfacial properties are characterized using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), the BET method, and inverse liquid chromatography (ILC). These techniques were useful in determining the effect of surface treatments and further chemical modifications on pollen interfacial properties. Characterizing these properties allowed for improved understanding and utilization of pollen as a filler by revealing the enhanced surface interactions and surface properties of acid-base treated pollens when compared to as received untreated pollens. Epoxy and polyvinyl acetate (PVAc) matrices were used to demonstrate the effectiveness of pollen as a filler, as a function of pollen loading and surface treatments/chemical modifications. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was used to determine interfacial morphology, a high throughput mechanical characterization device (HTMECH) was used to determine mechanical properties, and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) was used to determine glass transition behavior. In epoxy, pollen was an effective load bearing filler only after modifying its surface with acid-base hydrolysis. In PVAc, pollen was an effective load bearing filler only after an additional functionalization with a silane coupling agent. Finally, the species of pollen incorporated in PVAc matrices was varied in order determine the effect of the size of surface nano- and micro- structures on wetting, adhesion, and composite properties. Composites containing pollen displayed enhanced wetting and interfacial adhesion when compared to composites with smooth silica particles. Additionally, it was observed that pollen with smaller surface structures were wetted more effectively by the polymer matrix than pollen with larger structures. However, mechanical properties did not suggest significant changes in interfacial adherence with varied pollen microstructure size. The results of this work highlight the feasibility and potential of utilizing pollen as a natural filler for creating high strength, light-weight polymer composites with sustainable filler.
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