Especially for polymers size matters

Important properties of polymeric materials like tensile strength and viscosity critically depend on the size, or rather, the chain length of the macromolecules that they consist of. In other words, these properties are defined by the molecular weight distribution and the average molecular weight of the polymer.

Measuring the molecular weight of a polymer therefore provides crucial information for understanding many aspects related to the behaviour of polymeric materials.

Thus, chemically identical polymers can show different tensile properties as a result of differing molecular weight. Such differences frequently result from polymer degradation and are especially relevant in the context of recycling. Also in polymer production, the molecular weight is a key parameter in quality control. While often only the melt flow index (MFI) is measured, knowledge of the actual molecular weight (distribution) provides a more detailed picture. Finally, in the development of new polymer materials, assessment of the molecular weight is a key factor for optimizing synthesis conditions.

The molecular weight of many conventional polymers can conveniently be assessed by a technique called Size Exclusion Chromatography (SEC). This technique separates dissolved polymer molecules according to their size by passing them through a column packed with porous particles. While the larger molecules cannot enter the pores and therefore elute from the column relatively rapidly, the smaller ones do enter the pores of the column material and thus experience a net retardation. The final result is a chromatogram, showing the amount of material eluting from the column versus the elution time, with the elution time being inversely related to the molecular weight.

One key issue with SEC is the fact that polymeric materials need to be dissolved in a suitable solvent. However, not all polymers are the same and their solubility heavily depends on their chemical nature and molecular weight. While many common polymers (e.g. perspex or polystyrene) are easily dissolved in tetrahydrofuran (THF), more polar materials like polyamides or some polyesters, require hexafluoroisopropanol (HFIP) for complete dissolution. Even water (H2O) may be the only suitable solvent for certain polymers. On the other hand, the industrially important class of polyolefins (e.g. polyethylene, polypropylene) can only be dissolved in a chlorinated solvent and the complete SEC analysis is performed at 160 °C!

It is clear that every type of material needs specific measurement conditions to assess its molecular weight. At PTG/e, we have many years of experience with polymers of widely varying nature. Our state-of-the-art SEC equipment, running on different solvents, enables us to cover molecular weight determinations of almost any polymeric material, including those that are notoriously ‘difficult’ to dissolve.

Please contact us if you would like to find out whether molecular weight determination by SEC can provide a breakthrough insight into your material of interest!