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Structural and dynamical roles of bound polymer chains in rubber reinforcement...

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The addition of nanofillers to rubber matrices is a powerful route to improve the mechanical properties. Here, we focus on a molecular understanding of basic mechanisms that are important for the reinforcement in rubbers. The key role in this process is ascribed to bound rubber (BR) that engages with the matrix as well as with adjacent nanofillers. To date, this understanding has been impeded by the lack of experimental tools to directly probe the BR chains buried in a polymer matrix composed of the same polymer. To tackle this challenge, we combine neutron scattering/spectroscopy techniques with isotope-labeling and molecular dynamics simulations. The system is a simplified carbon-black-filled polybutadiene. The combined experimental and computational results provide new insights into the local structural and dynamical heterogeneities of BR chains and their interactions with the matrix polymer, highlighting (i) the structural partition of the bound chains into three components (i.e., trains, loops, and tails) and their fractions; (ii) their dynamical hierarchies, i.e., the trains that remain immobile on the filler surface, the loops that are fairly large and hence allow the interdigitation of matrix chains, and the tails with their unique characteristics to reach far out into the matrix and entangle with matrix chains. These multiple roles of the constituent components of the BR chains promote the formation of a well-developed adhesive polymer–filler interface, enhancing the elastic property of a filled rubber. The comprehensive understanding derived and validated by the model rubber will be translatable to many other polymer nanocomposites.