Fingerprinting Molecular Relaxation in Deformed Polymers
by Zhe Wang, et al.
The flow and deformation of macromolecules is ubiquitous in nature and industry, and an understanding of this phenomenon at both macroscopic and microscopic length scales is of fundamental and practical importance. Here, we present the formulation of a general mathematical framework, which could be used to extract, from scattering experiments, the molecular relaxation of deformed polymers. By combining and modestly extending several key conceptual ingredients in the literature, we show how the anisotropic single-chain structure factor can be decomposed by spherical harmonics and experimentally reconstructed from its cross sections on the scattering planes. The resulting wave-number-dependent expansion coefficients constitute a characteristic fingerprint of the macromolecular deformation, permitting detailed examinations of polymer dynamics at the microscopic level. We apply this approach to survey a long-standing problem in polymer physics regarding the molecular relaxation in entangled polymers after a large step deformation. The classical tube theory of Doi and Edwards predicts a fast chain retraction process immediately after the deformation, followed by a slow orientation relaxation through the reptation mechanism. This chain retraction hypothesis, which is the keystone of the tube theory for macromolecular flow and deformation, is critically examined by analyzing the fine features of the two-dimensional anisotropic spectra from small-angle neutron scattering by entangled polystyrenes. We show that the unique scattering patterns associated with the chain retraction mechanism are not experimentally observed. This result calls for a fundamental revision of the current theoretical picture for nonlinear rheological behavior of entangled polymeric liquids.