Structure and Properties of Self-Assembled Sub-Micron Thin Nafion® Films
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This thesis is concerned with the study of morphology and properties of sub-micron thin Nafion® films. The motivation of the work arises from the need to characterize the 4 -10 nm thin ionomer films in the catalyst layer of polymer electrolyte fuel cell (PEFC). A protocol for the fabrication of self-assembled ultra-thin Nafion® films on planar substrates was successfully developed. Films of thickness ranging 4 nm-300 nm, determined by three different techniques - variable angle spectroscopy ellipsometry (VASE), atomic force microscope (AFM) and x-ray photo-electron spectroscopy (XPS), could be reproducibly generated on SiO2/Si wafer. The 4 nm thin film is one of the thinnest, continuous film of Nafion® ever reported. This is the first time that the structure/properties of such thin Nafion® film have been investigated. An interesting finding is the thickness-dependent structure and property of these films. Films with thickness <55 nm exhibited hydrophilic-free surface but thicker films (>55 nm) had hydrophobic surface. Similarly, sub-55 nm films had a lower and thickness-independent protonic conductivity compared to thicker films that exhibited thickness-dependent conductivity. Anomalously high water uptake (by quartz crystal microbalance) and swelling (by ellipsometry) of sub-55nm films indicate that low conductivity is not due to low water content However, differences in surface morphology were observed by the AFM phase contrast analysis. The lack of ionic domain was also observed in the thinner films (4-30 nm) from the grazing incidence small x-ray scattering (GISAXS) experiments. Thermal annealing over a range of temperature (110-160 oC) revealed a dramatic switching of the film surface from hydrophilic to hydrophobic was observed for sub-55 nm films with lower thickness film requiring higher annealing temperature. Bulk proton conductivity was significantly reduced after annealing for all films. An interesting finding was the regeneration of conductivity after to prolonged liquid water exposure and a corresponding switching back of the surface to hydrophilic. The thickness-dependent structure/property of ultra-thin Nafion® films is attributed to substrate induced confinement effect. Self-assembly of Nafion® on various substrates (SiO2, carbon, Pt and Au) was studied. The ionomer/substrate interaction and resulting film morphology followed a trend with respect to substrate surface energies and Nafion® dispersion compositions.