Moisture Ingress at the Molecular Scale in Hygrothermal Aging of Fiber- Epoxy Interfaces
F Vukovic and TR Walsh, ACS APPLIED MATERIALS & INTERFACES, 12, 55278-55289 (2020).
Almost all applications of carbon fiber reinforced composites are susceptible to water aging, either via ambient humidity or through direct exposure to liquid water environments. Although the impacts of water aging in composites can be readily quantified via experimental efforts, details regarding the mechanisms of moisture ingress and aging, particularly at the incipient stages of aging under hygrothermal conditions, have proven challenging to resolve using experimental techniques alone. A deeper understanding of the factors that drive incipient moisture ingress during aging is required for more targeted approaches to combat water aging. Here, molecular dynamics simulations of a novel epoxy/carbon fiber interface exposed to liquid water under hygrothermal conditions are used to elucidate molecular details of the moisture ingress mechanisms at the incipient stages of the aging process. Remarkably, the simulations show that the fiber-matrix interface is not vulnerable to a moisture-wicking type of incipient water ingress and does not readily flood in these early stages of water aging. Instead, water is preferentially absorbed via the matrix-water interface, an ingress pathway that is facilitated by the dynamic mobility of polymer chains at this interface. These chains present electronegative sites that can capture water molecules and provide a conduit to transiently exposed pores and channels on the polymer surface, which creates a presoaked staging reservoir for subsequent deeper ingress into the composite. Characterization of the absorbed water is according to hydrogen bonding to the matrix, and the distributions and transport behavior of these waters are consistent with experimental observations. This work introduces new insights regarding the molecular-level details of moisture ingress and spatial distribution of water in these materials during hygrothermal aging, informing future design directions for extending both the service life and shelf life of next-generation composites.
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