The microstructure of physically assembled gels depends on mechanical loading and environmental stimuli such as temperature. Here, we report the real-time change in the structure of physically assembled triblock copolymer gels that consist of 10 wt% and 20 wt% of poly(styrene)-poly(isoprene)-poly(styrene) [PS-PI-PS] triblock copolymer in mineral oil (i) during the gelation process with decreasing temperature, (ii) subjected to large oscillatory deformation, and (iii) during the stress-relaxation process after the application of a step-strain. The presence of loosely bounded PS-aggregates at temperatures higher than the rheologically determined gelation temperature (Tgel) captures the progressive gelation process spanning over a broad temperature range. However, the microstructure fully develops at temperatures sufficiently lower than Tgel. The microstructure orients in the stretching direction with the applied strain. In an oscillation strain cycle, such oriented structure has been observed at low-strain. But, at large-strain, because of strain-localization the oriented structure splits, and only a fraction of midblock participates in load-bearing. Both microstructure recovery and time-dependent moduli during the stress-relaxation process after the application of a step-strain have been captured using a stretched-exponential model. However, the microstructure recovery time has been found to be two orders of magnitude slower than the stress-relaxation time at room temperature, indicating a complex nature of stress-relaxation and microstructure recovery processes involving midblock relaxation, endblock pullout and reassociation. Due to their viscoelastic nature, these gels' mechanical responses are sensitive to strain, temperature, and rate of deformation. Therefore, insights into the microstructural information as a function of these parameters will assist these gels' real-life applications and design new gels with improved properties.
Addressed the reviewers comments
10%Gel 27C Strain1
20%Gel 27C Strain1