Polythiophene thin films by surface-initiated polymerization: Mechanistic and structural studies

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© 2016 American Chemical Society. The ability to control nanoscale morphology and molecular organization in organic semiconducting polymer thin films is an important prerequisite for enhancing the efficiency of organic thin-film devices including organic light-emitting and photovoltaic devices. The current "top-down" paradigm for making such devices is based on utilizing solution-based processing (e.g., spin-casting) of soluble semiconducting polymers. This approach typically provides only modest control over nanoscale molecular organization and polymer chain alignment. A promising alternative to using solutions of presynthesized semiconducting polymers pursues instead a "bottom-up" approach to prepare surface-grafted semiconducting polymer thin films by surface-initiated polymerization of small-molecule monomers. Herein, we describe the development of an efficient method to prepare polythiophene thin films utilizing surface-initiated Kumada catalyst transfer polymerization. In this study, we provided evidence that the surface-initiated polymerization occurs by the highly robust controlled (quasi-"living") chain-growth mechanism. Further optimization of this method enabled reliable preparation of polythiophene thin films with thickness up to 100 nm. Extensive structural studies of the resulting thin films using X-ray and neutron scattering methods as well as ultraviolet photoemission spectroscopy revealed detailed information on molecular organization and the bulk morphology of the films, and enabled further optimization of the polymerization protocol. One of the remarkable findings was that surface-initiated polymerization delivers polymer thin films showing complex molecular organization, where polythiophene chains assemble into lateral crystalline domains of about 3.2 nm size, with individual polymer chains folded to form in-plane aligned and densely packed oligomeric segments (7-8 thiophene units per each segment) within each domain. Achieving such a complex mesoscale organization is virtually impossible with traditional methods relying on solution processing of presynthesized polymers. Another significant advantage of surface-confined polymer thin films is their remarkable stability toward organic solvents and other processing conditions. In addition to controlled bulk morphology, uniform molecular organization, and stability, a unique feature of the surface-initiated polymerization is that it can be used for the preparation of large-area uniformly nanopatterned polymer thin films. This was demonstrated using a combination of particle lithography and surface-initiated polymerization. In general, surface-initiated polymerization is not limited to polythiophene but can be also expanded toward other classes of semiconducting polymers and copolymers.

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Chemistry of Materials

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