This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project will develop a novel low-cost and safe approach to synthesis electroactive polymers (EAPs). Currently the EAPs are produced with a traditional direct copolymerization process using an expensive and dangerous monomer. The process has the danger of explosion and the EAPs are prohibitively expensive. The new process will develop an indirect approach by using low-cost and commercially available monomers to synthesis a polymer without electroactive behavior, which will be converted to the desired EAP in a second step using a special catalyst. This new approach provides an unconventional process to manufacture the EAP with low cost and high safety.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project will be to create a commercially viable process for producing specialty smart EAPs that might not otherwise be economical for practical applications. The low-cost and safe process will reduce the price of the high performance EAPs by more than 100-times so they will be cost effective for commercial applications such as energy storage capacitors with high energy density, electrocaloric effect cooling devices with high efficiency, energy harvesting modules to convert mechanical energy to electricity, and advanced actuation devices for minimally invasive surgery, full-page braille displays, and haptic feedback.
Electroactive polymers (EAP) are a family of smart materials that exhibit strong electrical, mechanical, or thermal response to electric field. While there are different definitions for EAP in the literature, it is referred to the materials with high dielectric constant which can be used to store electric energy (capacitors), change its dimensions (actuators), convert energy between mechanical motion and electricity (piezoelectric energy harvesting or sensor) or between thermal energy and electricity (pyroelectric temperature/image sensor or energy harvesting), or exhibit giant electrocaloric effect (ECE) for heat pump or cooling device applications. However, EAP materials based on trifluoroethylene (TrFE) have been prohibitively expensive due to the explosive nature of the raw material. The high price of EAP resin has significantly constrained the application of EAP-based smart devices. In this NSF SBIR Phase I project we demonstrated that TrFE-based EAP can be produced by an unconventional process from low cost commercial polymers containing chlorotrifluoroethylene (CTFE) under mild conditions with the assistance of a special catalyst. It was found the catalyst can effectively convert the commercial CTFE polymers to the TrFE-based EAP with high yield. The innovative new production process will reduce the EAP resin price by more than 90%. Furthermore, EAP materials from the new process also exhibit significantly higher thermal stability and elastic modulus than these produced with traditional direct polymerization process. It is expected that the new EAP materials produced in this project will enable many traditional and new applications that were otherwise not possible due to the high price, low thermal stability, and low modulus of currently available EAP resins.