Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Two-dimensional NMR spectroscopy reveals cation-triggered backbone degradation in polysulfone-based anion exchange membranes.

PMID 23335629


Anion exchange membranes (AEMs) find widespread applications as an electrolyte and/or electrode binder in fuel cells, electrodialysis stacks, flow and metal-air batteries, and electrolyzers. AEMs exhibit poor stability in alkaline media; their degradation is induced by the hydroxide ion, a potent nucleophile. We have used 2D NMR techniques to investigate polymer backbone stability (as opposed to cation stability) of the AEM in alkaline media. We report the mechanism behind a peculiar, often-observed phenomenon, wherein a demonstrably stable polysulfone backbone degrades rapidly in alkaline solutions upon derivatization with alkaline stable fixed cation groups. Using COSY and heteronuclear multiple quantum correlation spectroscopy (2D NMR), we unequivocally demonstrate that the added cation group triggers degradation of the polymer backbone in alkaline via quaternary carbon hydrolysis and ether hydrolysis, leading to rapid failure. This finding challenges the existing perception that having a stable cation moiety is sufficient to yield a stable AEM and emphasizes the importance of the often ignored issue of backbone stability.