Composite materials loaded with nanometer-sized reinforcing fillers are widely believed to have the potential to push polymer mechanical properties to extreme values. Realization of anticipated properties, however, has proven elusive. The analysis presented here traces this shortfall to the large-scale morphology of the filler as determined by small-angle X-ray scattering, light scattering, and electron imaging. We examine elastomeric, thermoplastic, and thermoset composites loaded with a variety of nanoscale reinforcing fillers such as precipitated silica, carbon nanotubes (single and multiwalled), and layered silicates. The conclusion is that large-scale disorder is ubiquitous in nanocomposites regardless of the level of dispersion, leading to substantial reduction of mechanical properties (modulus) compared to predictions based on idealized filler morphology.
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