Thermosets—polymeric materials that adopt a permanent shape upon curing—have a key role in the modern plastics and rubber industries, comprising about 20 per cent of polymeric materials manufactured today, with a worldwide annual production of about 65 million tons1,2. The high density of crosslinks that gives thermosets their useful properties (for example, chemical and thermal resistance and tensile strength) comes at the expense of degradability and recyclability. Here, using the industrial thermoset polydicyclopentadiene as a model system, we show that when a small number of cleavable bonds are selectively installed within the strands of thermosets using a comonomer additive in otherwise traditional curing workflows, the resulting materials can display the same mechanical properties as the native material, but they can undergo triggered, mild degradation to yield soluble, recyclable products of controlled size and functionality. By contrast, installation of cleavable crosslinks, even at much higher loadings, does not produce degradable materials. These findings reveal that optimization of the cleavable bond location can be used as a design principle to achieve controlled thermoset degradation. Moreover, we introduce a class of recyclable thermosets poised for rapid deployment.
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Acknowledgements We thank the National Science Foundation (DMREF CHE-1629358) and the National Institutes of Health (1R01CA220468-01) for support of this work. P.S. was supported by a fellowship from the American Cancer Society. S.L.K. was supported by a fellowship from the Misrock Fund. We thank B. Adams and W. Massefski for assistance with NMR analysis, A. Schwartzman for assistance with AFM and nanoindentation measurements, T. McClure for assistance with ICP-OES measurements, M. Tarkanian for assistance with mould fabrication, and S.-X. Luo for assistance with Raman measurements. J.L., D.V., Y.S. and K.A.N. acknowledge support for the microparticle impact experiments from the US Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, under Cooperative Agreement number W911NF-18-2-0048.