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Abstract

Samples of low-density polyethylene, free from additives, were kept at temperatures between 284° and 355°C under nitrogen containing 1.16% oxygen or less. Changes in molecular weight distribution (MWD) and degree of long-chain branching (LCB) were followed by gel chromatography (GPC) and viscosity measurements. Other structural changes were investigated by infrared spectroscopy and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC). Both chain scission and molecular enlargement occur simultaneously. Chain scission accounts for the formation of low molecular weight material and volatiles. Molecular enlargement reactions cause an increase in LCB and ultimately the formation of insoluble material. At lower temperatures (284°C) an increase in the high molecular weight end of the MWD is observed. The amount of olefinic unsaturation, carbonyl, and ether groups increase with degradation. Conjugated systems are formed. The formation of thin discolored and insoluble surface layers indicate that the attack of oxygen is diffusion controlled. The DSC thermograms undergo large changes at 3333° and 355°C, increasing with time and oxygen content. A reaction scheme for the thermo-oxidative degradation of polyethylene is discussed. Both inter- and intramolecular hydrogen abstractions by peroxy radicals are suggested to occur. Thus, the formation of trans-vinylene and ether groups results from intramolecular abstraction, while internal carbonyl groups are formed by intermolecular abstraction. Chain scission will be accomplished by both routes and together with “back-biting” is suggested to account for the formation of volatiles. The formation of conjugated sequences causing discoloration is correlated with the formation of trans-vinylene groups. Because of the restricted accessability of oxygen under our conditions, the reactions discussed previously for pure thermal degradation1 are also considered to be important. The molecular enlargement observed is thus proposed to be mainly due to the combination of alkyl radicals even when oxygen is present.