A Caltech Library Service

Exploring Microscopic Thermal Transport Properties of Molecular Crystals with Simulations and Experiments


Robbins, Andrew Beyer (2019) Exploring Microscopic Thermal Transport Properties of Molecular Crystals with Simulations and Experiments. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/ZZJ3-0K58.


Polymers are widely used in applications due to their diverse and controllable properties in many physical domains. However, polymers have not historically been used in applications for which a high thermal conductivity is required as bulk polymers are typically thermal insulators. However, research in recent decades on a handful of highly oriented or semi-crystalline polymers has shown the potential for dramatically increased uniaxial thermal conductivity by factors exceeding 100. This dramatic increase in thermal conductivity is because heat is conducted by atomic vibrations along the covalently bonded polymer backbone rather than across chains by weak van der Waals bonds as in unoriented polymers. While it is known that polymers can be processed to yield these properties, much remains unknown about the microscopic transport properties of atomic vibrations in these materials and the true upper limits to thermal conductivity. In this thesis, we address these knowledge gaps by using a combination of simulations and experiments to investigate thermal conduction in semi-crystalline and crystalline polymers.

First, we present molecular dynamics simulations of a perfect polymer crystal, polynorbornene. While polymer crystals studied typically exhibit substantially enhanced thermal conductivities above those of the amorphous form, polynorbornene exhibits a glass-like thermal conductivity of less than 1 Wm-1K-1 even as a perfect crystal. This unusual behavior occurs despite the polymer satisfying many of the conventional criteria for high thermal conductivity. Using our simulations, we show that the origin of this unusual behavior is excessively anharmonic bonds and a complex unit cell.

Second, we move to experimental studies of thermal transport in polymers. A key requirement to perform materials science is a method to routinely and easily characterize the property of interest in diverse samples. For polymers, this property is typically the in-plane thermal conductivity. This property turns out to be surprisingly difficult to measure using conventional thermal characterization methods. In this work, we adapt transient grating spectroscopy (TG), a well-known method in the chemistry community, to perform in-plane thermal conductivity measurements of polymer films. TG can resolve the in-plane thermal anisotropy of a sample without any physical contact and at tunable length scales, a substantial advance in capability over all prior characterization methods. We extend the application of TG to probe sub-µm length scales, and we successfully apply the technique to numerous poor quality polymer samples as well as thin films.

Finally, we exploit the capability of TG to probe thermal conduction over sub-µm length scales to provide the first experimentally resolved microscopic transport properties of atomic vibrations in semi-crystalline polyethylene (PE). Despite the intense interest over decades in PE due to its high intrinsic thermal conductivity, no experimental measurement has yet been able to directly probe the heat-carrying phonons, leading to many questions about the relevant scattering mechanisms and absolute upper limits of thermal conductivity in real samples. Using TG, we present the first observation of quasi-ballistic thermal transport at sub-µm length scales, from which we obtain the phonon mean free path spectra of a semi-crystalline PE sample. Further, we pair these results with Small-Angle X-ray Scattering measurements to show that thermal phonons propagate ballistically within and across nanocrystalline domains, contrary to the conventional viewpoint. These results provide an unprecedented microscopic view of thermal transport in polymer crystals that was previously experimentally inaccessible.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Thermal conductivity; heat transport; nanoscale; polymers; polynorbornene; polyethylene; transient grating; heterodyne; ioffe-regel; thin films; anisotropic; quasi-ballistic; mean free path
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Materials Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Minnich, Austin J.
Thesis Committee:
  • Fultz, Brent T. (chair)
  • Kornfield, Julia A.
  • Johnson, William L.
  • Minnich, Austin J.
Defense Date:11 January 2019
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Office of Naval Research (ONR)N00014-15-1-2688
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:02062019-144758624
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for Chapter 2.
Robbins, Andrew Beyer0000-0002-8328-1762
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:11386
Deposited By: Andrew Robbins
Deposited On:20 Feb 2019 20:42
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:34

Thesis Files

PDF - Final Version
See Usage Policy.


Repository Staff Only: item control page