ToC of Chromatographic Separation: A Versatile Strategy to Prepare Discrete and Well-Defined Polymer Libraries

Chromatographic Separation: A Versatile Strategy to Prepare Discrete and Well-Defined Polymer Libraries

Elizabeth A. Murphy, Cheng Zhang, Christopher M. Bates, and Craig J. Hawker

Acc. Chem. Res. 2024

Full Article


Abstract: The preparation of discrete and well-defined polymers is an emerging strategy for emulating the remarkable precision achieved by macromolecular synthesis in nature. Although modern controlled polymerization techniques have unlocked access to a cornucopia of materials spanning a broad range of monomers, molecular weights, and architectures, the word “controlled” is not to be confused with “perfect”. Indeed, even the highest-fidelity polymerization techniques─yielding molar mass dispersities in the vicinity of Đ = 1.05─unavoidably create a considerable degree of structural and/or compositional dispersity due to the statistical nature of chain growth. Such dispersity impacts many of the properties that researchers seek to control in the design of soft materials.

The development of strategies to minimize or entirely eliminate dispersity and access molecularly precise polymers therefore remains a key contemporary challenge. While significant advances have been made in the realm of iterative synthetic methods that construct oligomers with an exact molecular weight, head-to-tail connectivity, and even stereochemistry via small-molecule organic chemistry, as the word “iterative” suggests, these techniques involve manually propagating monomers one reaction at a time, often with intervening protection and deprotection steps. As a result, these strategies are time-consuming, difficult to scale, and remain limited to lower molecular weights. The focus of this Account is on an alternative strategy that is more accessible to the general scientific community because of its simplicity, versatility, and affordability: chromatography. Researchers unfamiliar with the intricacies of synthesis may recall being exposed to chromatography in an undergraduate chemistry lab. This operationally simple, yet remarkably powerful, technique is most commonly encountered in the purification of small molecules through their selective (differential) adsorption to a column packed with a low-cost stationary phase, usually silica. Because the requisite equipment is readily available and the actual separation takes little time (on the order of 1 h), chromatography is used extensively in small-molecule chemistry throughout industry and academia alike. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that similar types of chromatography are not more widely leveraged in the field of polymer science as well.

Here, we discuss recent advances in using chromatography to control the structure and properties of polymeric materials. Emphasis is placed on the utility of an adsorption-based mechanism that separates polymers based on polarity and composition at tractable (gram) scales for materials science, in contrast to size exclusion, which is extremely common but typically analyzes very small quantities of a sample (∼1 mg) and is limited to separating by molar mass. Key concepts that are highlighted include (1) the separation of low-molecular-weight homopolymers into discrete oligomers (Đ = 1.0) with precise chain lengths and (2) the efficient fractionation of block copolymers into high-quality and widely varied libraries for accelerating materials discovery. In summary, the authors hope to convey the exciting possibilities in polymer science afforded by chromatography as a scalable, versatile, and even automated technique that unlocks new avenues of exploration into well-defined materials for a diverse assortment of researchers with different training and expertise.