A Direct Quantitative Measure of Surface Mobility in a Glassy Polymer

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Science  28 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6174, pp. 994-999
DOI: 10.1126/science.1244845

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Polymer Film Behavior

An ongoing debate in the understanding of the behavior of thin-film glassy polymers is whether there is nanoconfinement of large molecules or enhanced mobility near a free surface. Chai et al. (p. 994; see the Perspective by Chen et al.) prepared polymer films with a sharp step in the profile by depositing broken film fragments onto a uniform underlay. Atomic force microscopy revealed changes to the overall film profile with time at various temperatures. A transition was observed from localized motions to relaxation of the entire film at a temperature close to that of the bulk glass transition temperature.


Thin polymer films have striking dynamical properties that differ from their bulk counterparts. With the simple geometry of a stepped polymer film on a substrate, we probe mobility above and below the glass transition temperature Tg. Above Tg the entire film flows, whereas below Tg only the near-surface region responds to the excess interfacial energy. An analytical thin-film model for flow limited to the free surface region shows excellent agreement with sub-Tg data. The system transitions from whole-film flow to surface localized flow over a narrow temperature region near the bulk Tg. The experiments and model provide a measure of surface mobility in a simple geometry where confinement and substrate effects are negligible. This fine control of the glassy rheology is of key interest to nanolithography among numerous other applications.

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