Biomacromolecules 20 (10) 3924-3932 [2019-10-14; online 2019-09-17]
Many polymers, including polyethylene, feature a relatively low melting point and hence must be cross-linked to make them viable for applications that demand a high stiffness and creep resistance at elevated temperatures. The resulting thermoset plastics cannot be recycled, and therefore alternative materials with a reconfigurable internal network structure are in high demand. Here, we establish that such a thermoset-like yet recyclable material can be realized through the addition of a nanocellulose reinforcing agent. A network consisting of cellulose nanocrystals, nano- or microfibrils imparts many of the characteristics that are usually achieved through chemical cross-linking. For instance, the addition of only 7.5 wt % of either nanocellulose material significantly enhances the melt stiffness of an otherwise molten ethylene-acrylate copolymer by at least 1 order of magnitude. At the same time, the nanocellulose network reduces the melt creep elongation to less than 10%, whereas the neat molten matrix would rupture. At high shear rates, however, the molten composites do not display a significantly higher viscosity than the copolymer matrix, and therefore retain the processability of a thermoplastic material. Repeated re-extrusion at 140 °C does not compromise the thermomechanical properties, which indicates a high degree of recyclability. The versatility of dynamic nanocellulose networks is illustrated by 3D printing of a cellulose composite, where the high melt stiffness improves the printability of the resin.