Towards porous polymer monoliths for the efficient, retention-independent performance in the isocratic separation of small molecules by means of nano-liquid chromatography
We have investigated the free-radical copolymerization dynamics of styrene and divinylbenzene in the presence of micro- and macro-porogenic diluents in 100@mm I.D. sized molds under conditions of slow thermal initiation leading to (macro)porous poly(styrene-co-divinylbenzene) monolithic scaffolds. These specifically designed experiments allowed the quantitative determination of monomer specific conversion against polymerization time to derive the porous polymer scaffold composition at each desirable copolymerization stage after phase separation. This was carried out over a time scale of 3h up to 48h polymerization time, enabling the efficient and repeatable termination of the polymerization reactions. In parallel, the porous and hydrodynamic properties of the derived monolithic columns were thoroughly studied in isocratic nano-LC mode for the reversed-phase separation of a homologous series of small retained molecules. At the optimized initiator concentration, polymerization temperature and time, the macroporous poly(styrene-co-divinylbenzene) monoliths show a permanent mesoporous pore space, which was readily observable by electron microscopy and indicated by nitrogen adsorption experiments. Under these conditions, we consistently find a polymer scaffold composition which suggests a high degree of cross-linking and thus minimum amount of gel porosity. These columns reveal a retention-insensitive plate height in the separation of small retained molecules which only slightly decreases at increased linear mobile phase velocity. As the polymerization progresses, a build-up of less-densely cross-linked material occurs, which is directly reflected in the observed consistent increase in retention and plate heights. This leads to a significant deterioration in overall isocratic separation performance. The decrease in performance is ascribed in particular to the increased mass transfer resistance governing the monoliths' performance over the whole linear chromatographic flow velocity range at polymerization times significantly higher than that of phase separation. The performance of the optimized monoliths only becomes limited by fluid dispersion due to the poorly structured macroporous pore space.
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