Methoxy Substitution Enhances Metal Ion Binding Capacity of the Water-Soluble Spiropyran Copolymer

Chao Zeng, Harsheen Rajput, James R. Brown, Boer Liu, Timothy E. Long, Paul Westerhoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Spiropyran-containing polymers have exhibited metal ion binding capabilities in organic solvents, but their limited solubility in water has restricted their application. To address this challenge, two water-soluble spiropyran copolymers were synthesized by copolymerizing spiropyran acrylate (SPA) or methoxy-functionalized spiropyran (SPOCH3) monomers with hydrophilic oligo(ethylene oxide) monoacrylate monomers (OEOA). The impacts of methoxy substitution on copolymer photoisomerization and metal ion complexation properties were elucidated. The two copolymers (SPA-co-OEOA and SPOCH3-co-OEOA) retained the photoresponsive property in water. Methoxy substitution enhanced the stability of the ring-opened merocyanine (MC) isomer, with further aggregation of zwitterionic MC through electrostatic interactions. Consequently, only 21% of the MC reverted to the ring-closed isomer under visible light. UV-vis absorbance spectra demonstrated the formation of the MC-M2+ complex in ethanol with Cu2+, Zn2+, or Ca2+. Moreover, it was evident that methoxy groups contributed additional binding sites for metal ion complexation. In addition to qualitative characterization, the influence of methoxy substitution on the Cu2+ complexation in pure water was further quantified. The results showed that SPOCH3-co-OEOA complexed with 74% Cu2+ (C0 = 2.0 mg/L), which was 1.7 times higher than that of SPA-co-OEOA. The estimated pKa values were 3.9 and 4.2 for SPA-co-OEOA and SPOCH3-co-OEOA, respectively. The protonation of MC to MCH+ reduces the available phenolate sites for metal ion binding, elucidating the observed loss in Cu2+ removal capacity for both copolymers under the acidic condition. This work advances the fundamental understanding of the effects of the functional group on the photoresponsive and metal ion complexation behaviors of water-soluble spiropyran copolymers, which is essential toward the development of spiropyran-based materials for selective removal and/or recovery of metal ion(s) in aqueous settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)362-370
Number of pages9
JournalACS Applied Polymer Materials
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 12 2024


  • aqueous solution
  • functional group
  • photoresponsive polymer
  • polymer−metal complexation
  • spiropyran
  • stimuli-responsive polymer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Process Chemistry and Technology
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Organic Chemistry


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