Thermally responsive polymer systems for self-healing, reversible adhesion and shape memory applications

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Biomedical and Chemical Engineering


Patrick T. Mather


Thermally responsive polymers, Self-healing, Shape memory polymers, Reversible adhesion

Subject Categories

Materials Science and Engineering


Responsive polymers are "smart" materials that are capable of performing prescribed, dynamic functions under an applied stimulus. In this dissertation, we explore several novel design strategies to develop thermally responsive polymers and polymer composites for self-healing, reversible adhesion and shape memory applications.

In the first case described in Chapters 2 and 3, a thermally triggered self-healing material was prepared by blending a high-temperature epoxy resin with a thermoplastic polymer, poly([varepsilon]-caprolactone) (PCL). The initially miscible system undergoes polymerization induced phase separation (PIPS) during the curing of epoxy and yields a variety of compositionally dependent morphologies. At a particular PCL loading, the cured blend displays a "bricks-and-mortar" morphology in which epoxy exists as interconnected spheres ("bricks") within a continuous PCL matrix ("mortar"). A heat induced "bleeding" phenomenon was observed in the form of spontaneous wetting of all free surfaces by the molten PCL, and is attributed to the volumetric thermal expansion of PCL above its melting point in excess of epoxy brick expansion, which we term differential expansive bleeding (DEB). This DEB is capable of healing damage such as cracks. In controlled self-healing experiments, heating of a cracked specimen led to PCL bleeding from the bulk that yields a liquid layer bridging the crack gap. Upon cooling, a "scar" composed of PCL crystals was formed at the site of the crack, restoring a significant portion of mechanical strength. We further utilized DEB to enable strong and thermally-reversible adhesion of the material to itself and to metallic substrates, without any requirement for macroscopic softening or flow.

After that, Chapters 4-6 present a novel composite strategy for the design and fabrication of shape memory polymer composites. The basic approach involves physically combining two or more functional components into an interpenetrating fiber/matrix structure, allowing them to function in a synergistic fashion yet remain physically separated. This latter aspect is critical since it enables the control of overall composite properties and functions by separately tuning each component. Utilizing the intrinsic versatility of this approach, composites with novel properties and functions (in addition to "regular" shape memory) have been developed, including (1) shape memory elastomeric composites (SMECs; Chapter 4), (2) triple-shape polymeric composites (TSPCs; Chapter 5), and (3) electrically conductive nanocomposites (Chapter 6).

Then in Chapter 7, by combining the success in both thermoplastic based self-healing and shape memory polymer composites, we demonstrate a thermally triggered self-healing coating. This coating features a unique "shape memory assisted self-healing" mechanism in which crack closure (via shape memory) and crack re-bonding (via melting and diffusion of the thermoplastic healing agent) are achieved simultaneously upon a single heating step, leading to both structural and functional (corrosion resistance) recovery.

Finally, Chapter 8 presents for the first time the preparation of functionally graded shape memory polymers (SMPs) that, unlike conventional SMPs, have a range of glass transition temperatures that are spatially graded. This was achieved using a temperature gradient curing method that imposes different vitrification limits at different positions along the gradient. The resulting material is capable of responding to a wide range of thermal triggers and a good candidate for low-cost, material based temperature sensors.

All the aforementioned materials and methods show great potential for practical applications due to their high performance, low cost and broad applicability. Some recommendations for future research and development are given in Chapter 9.


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