You are on page 1of 10

The Fine Structure of Cotton Fibre as

Revealed by Swelling During Methacrylate

Water-swollen cotton fibres, accommodated to the embedding medium by means
of a solvent exchange technique, were embedded in a mixture of methyl
methacrylate and n-butyl methacrylate and sectioned with a diamond knife.
Examination of the sections under the electron microscope showed that the
swelling effect of the water on the fibres was subsequently enhanced by an
enormous additional swelling that occurred during tile polymerization of the
embedding medium. This additional swelling is explained by the assumption
that the polymerization reaction proceeds in the medium permeating the fibre
at a faster rate than in the external medium. In consequence, monomer diffuses
from outside into the fibre.
Since the methacrylate embedding technique can disperse the cellulose to a
great extent, it provides a suitable method for studying the structure of the
cotton fibre.

A G~EAT deal of effort goes into attempts to improve the properties of the
cotton fibre by various chemical finishing processes. Since reactions designed
to introduce crosslinking agents into cellulose proceed via swelling of the
cotton, an understanding of the swelling mechanism of the cotton fibre is
of great importance to anyone engaged in this field of research. Swelling
is intimately connected with the fine structure of the fibre; hence a study
of the cotton in the swollen state should shed light on its fine structure.
Although in the past the cotton fibre has been the subject of many
studies, it is only recently that the advent of modern microtomes has
facilitated a more direct study of its fine structure. Of particular value is
the availability of diamond knives with which tough materials like mature
cotton fibres can be cut into sections only a hundred or so Angstr6m units
thick. As shown by Rollins, Moore and Tripp 1, not only can the fine
structure of unmodified cotton fibre be studied, but it is also possible by
suitable techniques to observe the effect of crosslinking reactions.
This paper presents results of the examination of sections of cotton
fibre. It will be shown that if fibres are first swollen in water, and then
after a suitable solvent exchange embedded in methacrylates, an enormous
additional swelling is obtained.

Cotton cloth that had been desized, pressure boiled, bleached in sodium
hypochlorite and acid washed was cut into small pieces approximately
5 mm × 5 mm. Prior to being embedded, some of the pieces were dried in
an oven at 100°C while others were soaked in water at room temperature.
The methacrylate embedding was carried out as follows. The monomers,
supplied by Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd, were freed from inhibitor
by washing in dilute alkali, washing in distilled water, and drying with

anhydrous sodium sulphate. The embedding medium was a 4:1 mixture by
volume of n-butyl methacrylate and methyl methacrylate catalysed with
benzoyl peroxide (approximately two per cent). The oven-dried cotton was
placed directly in gelatin capsules containing the embedding medium. The
water-swollen cotton was first passed through a series of water-acetone
mixtures of ascending concentration of acetone, finishing with pure acetone.
The acetone was then replaced with methacrylates by soaking the sample
in several changes of the monomers. Finally the sample was placed in the
catalysed embedding medium. The polymerization was effected in the oven
at temperatures ranging from 50 ° to 75°C. Embedding was also done in
Petri dishes so that the progress of polymerization could be followed with
the aid of a low-power optical microscope. Samples both dry and water-
swollen were also embedded in Araldite, Durcupan and gelatin according
to standard techniques2.
Sections were cut on an LKB Ultrotome microtome fitted with a diamond
knife, collected in the usual way on specimen grids, and examined in the
electron microscope. The sections embedded in methacrylates were some-
times subjected to one of the following treatments.
(1) The embedding medium was dissolved from the section by immersing
the grid in a suitable solvent, e.g. methyl ethyl ketone, amyl acetate, or amyl
alcohol. After several washes in pure solvent the specimen was shadowed
by the evaporation in v a c u o of a platinum-carbon pellet 3.

Figure / - - D r y fibres. Cross section shadowed after dissolution of embedding
medium. Magnification × 4500; reproduced without reduction

(2) (a) The cellulose was dissolved from the section, leaving the emlze2ding
medium intact, by floating the grid, section downwards, on the surface of a
solution of cuprammonium hydroxide (supplied by the British Drug
Heuses Ltd to the British Cotton Industry Research Association's specifi-
cationS). The sections were rinsed first in ammonia, then in a solution of
Rochelle salt, and finally in distilled water.
(b) Another way of dissolving the cellulose was by floating the grids on
the surface of 72 per cent sulphuric acid, and rinsing in distilled water.
(3) Some sections were stained by floating the grids on the surface of
five per cent phosphotungstic acid.

Figure 1 shows a shadowed cross section of the oven-dried fibre embedded
in methacrylates. Apart from general contours very little of the fibre
structure can be seen in such a section.
However, a cross section of an originally water-swollen fibre embedded
in methacrylates after solvent replacement contains a wealth of detail.
Figure 2 shows that the wall of the fibre has separated into concentric
layers, or lamellae, of remarkably uniform thickness. The lamellae are
seen in the micrograph as discontinuous rings; evidently they are split up.
In Figure 2 the darker areas correspond to the cellulose and the lighter
ones to the embedding medium. That this is so can be proved by treating

a ~ W

Figure 2 Cross section of a swollen fibre. Magnification × 4500:
reproduced without reduction

the sections with solvents. If a section is treated with a solvent for the
embedding medium, Figure 3 results, showing the cotton cellulose. If,
however, a solvent for cellulose is used, the resulting electron micrograph
(Figure 4) shows the embedding medium with many holes; each of these
originally contained cellulose. Kling ~ and co-workers published electron
micrographs similar to Figure 2, but they mistakenly interpreted the light
areas as corresponding to swollen lamellae and the dark areas as repre-
senting some noncellulosic interlammellar substances of unspecified chemical
composition; hence most of their conclusions are perforce wrong.
Staining the cross sections with phosphotungstic acid reveals that the
fibre wall is composed of very thin fibrils which will be called microfibrils.
These can be seen in Figure 5, which is a micrograph, taken at higher
magnification, of such a stained cross section; it shows parts of two
lamellae. The thickness of the microfibrils has been estimated to be about
80 A, although microfibrils having thickness of about 40 A have also been
observed. It is not yet known whether the 80 A microfibrils eventually split
into the thinner 40 A micro fibrils.
Figure 6 shows a shadowed longitudinal section from which the embedding
medium has been dissolved. It illustrates how in some regions the dispersion

Figure 3--Swollen fibre. Cross section shadowed after dissolution of
embedding medium. Magnification ×3600; reproduced without reduction

Of cellulose progressed to such an extent that individual microfibrils may
be discerned, while in other regions the microfibrils are united to form
quite thick bundles.
Fibres recovered by dissolving polymerized embeddings exhibit appear-
ance and properties different from those of ordinary cotton, even after
continuous extraction in boiling solvents for three weeks. Even sections as
thin as 300 A cannot be washed completely free from the embedding
medium by such extraction. These facts suggest that some grafting, as well
as homopolymerization, has taken place.
The dispersed state of the structure, as seen in Figures 2 to 6, might at
first sight be taken to represent the true structure of the fibre in its water-
swollen state, since the water of swelling was replaced by acetone which,
in turn, was replaced by embedding medium in the course of preparation
of the sections. However, the cross-sectional swelling of the cotton fibre
on immersion in water is only about 30 per cent, whereas on embedding
it may be as much as 10 000 per cent. This enormous additional swelling
occurs only with the methacrylates as the embedding medium; in other
media, e.g. in gelatin or epoxy resin, no distension of the fibre structure
is observed, the sections having an appearance similar to that shown in
Figure 1. Thorough pre-swelling in water followed by an efficient solvent
replacement is a necessary condition for the occurrence of the phenomenon,
which, however, is not due to simple diffusion, since it is not brought

Figure 4--Swollen fibre. Cross section shadowed after dissolution of
cellulose. Magnification x4500; reproduced without reduction
J. D L U G O S Z

about even by soaking the fibres in methacrylate monomers for several
It therefore follows that this additional swelling is due to and occurs
during the polymerization of the methacrylate embedding medium. It will
therefore be called 'polymerization swelling'. In order to follow its progress,
the polymerizing preparation was removed from the oven at intervals and
examined. It was then observed that the swelling occurred rather rapidly
after a period of induction of several hours during which no appreciable
swelling could be detected. The appearance of polymerization swelling
coincided with a sharp rise in the viscosity of the external medium. This
suggests that the polymerization swelling may be connected with the well-
known auto-acceleration effect6 and may occur by the same mechanism.

It is well known that the bulk polymerization of methyl methacrylate
proceeds initially as a first-order reaction; at about 25 per cent conversion,
when the viscosity of the system increases markedly, the reaction acceler-
ates. The auto-acceleration is believed to be brought about by a decrease
in the termination rate caused by the rise in the viscosity of the polymerizing
medium. This explanation is supported by the finding of Trommsdorff et a U
that the polymerization is hastened if the viscosity of the monomer is
increased by the dissolution in it of its (or other) polymer.

Figure 5---Cross section of a small part of a swollen fibre. Section stained
with phosphotungstic acid. Magnification × 44 000; reproduced 'without

Similar conditions exist in the medium permeating the cotton fibre; the
presence of cellulose, while not appreciably affecting the reactions of
initiation and propagation, impedes chain termination. Movement and
growth of a macroradical are restricted to the spaces that were originally
accessible to water and are now filled with monomer. A macroradical in
the fibre is to some extent isolated from other macroradicals by cellulose;
the probability of its colliding and reacting with another macroradical is
reduced and hence its lifetime is increased, during which it continues to
add on monomer molecules and so grows longer. Thus the rate of poly-
merization is higher and auto-acceleration occurs earlier than in the
external medium.
In a system comprising a cotton fibre impregnated with catalysed methyl
methacrylate monomer and immersed in it, the external medium is in
communication with the m e d i u m in the fibre; during polymerization,
therefore, a gradient of concentration of monomer is developed across the
boundary of the fibre. Monomer tends to diffuse through the outermost
lamella into the medium in the first interlamellar space and to dilute it.
This results in a swelling pressure which causes the outermost lamella to
expand and to separate from the rest of the fibre. The tension in the

Figure 6--Longitudinal section of a swollen fibre. Section shadowed after
dissolution of embedding medium. Magnification × 3600; reproduced without
J. D L U G O S Z

expanding lamella splits it up. The now open structure of the outermost
lamella facilitates the diffusion of monomer. Consequently, a concentration
gradient is set up across the second lamella, which, in its turn, expands
and splits up. In this way the dispersion of cellulose is propagated, layer by
layer, towards the lumen.
Monomer must evidently be driven into the fibre under the influence
of a considerable concentration gradient to account for the rapidity with
which polymerization swelling is propagated. Continuous removal, by
polymerization, of molecules from the diffusing monomer tends to maintain
the gradient and swelling of the polymer so generated continues to expand
the fibre. The following factors are thought to contribute to this state of
(1) The medium within the expanding part of the fibre, containing
polymer of higher molecular weight and hence being more viscous, poly-
merizes faster than the external medium.
(2) The restricted mobility of the polymer molecules confined to grow
in the spaces that have been opened by swelling the fibre in water may
result in the existence of long-lived macroradicals. On being brought into
contact with the diffusing monomer, these trapped radicals would resume
their polymerization.
(3) The viscoelastic flow of cellulose during polymerization swelling
involves first the breaking of van der Waals and hydrogen bonds and, as
stress concentrations exceed chemical bond strength, probably the scission
of cellulose chains. Now the breaking of primary valence bonds results
in the production of free radicals. This additional source of initiation, by
further increasing the rate of polymerization, would tend to increase the
concentration gradient; the grafted polymer chains, though attached at
one end to cellulose, can still participate in the swelling phenomena.
The polymerization swelling occurs some hours after the polymerization
reaction has started. Evidently it is only after auto-acceleration has begun
in the medium permeating the fibre but before it has done so in the
external medium that the concentration gradient, and hence the swelling
pressure, may become high enough to disrupt the fibre. The polymerization
swelling ceases when, with the onset of auto-acceleration in the external
medium, the monomer concentrations within and without the fibre equalize.
It is thus seen that the polymerization swelling is likely to be a complex
phenomenon involving diffusion, polymerization, and viscoelastic flow,
which taking place simultaneously, determine its progress. For instance,
when a piece of cotton fabric rather than a single fibre is embedded, the
polymerization swelling is not uniform throughout the sample; only the
fibres lying along the edge of the fabric tend to be swollen along their
entire length, while in those disposed at right angles to the edge the
swelling decreases away from the edge. This is readily explained: just as
the presence of cellulose hastens the polymerization in the medium within
the fibre, so the presence of the fabric hastens, though to a less extent, the
oolymerization of the part of the medium that fills inter-fibre spaces.
Thus, except at the edges of the fabric, the time is reduced during which
the concentrations of monomer in the medium within and without the
fibres may differ appreciably.

it has long been known that biological specimens, when embedded in
methacrylates, may suffer serious distortion, which has been called 'poly-
merization damage' or 'polymerization explosion' because it results in the
separation of cells or even in the disruption of the contents of a single
cellL Cotton fibres, being so susceptible to this damage and showing it
readily, are suitable specimens with which to study the methacrylate
embedding method, should such a study be undertaken in an effort to
find how to eliminate this damage.
This disruptive tendency of the methacrylate embedding medium is
nevertheless found useful in structural studies of materials lacking inherent
contrast. The methacrylate embedding technique disperses the structural
building units of cellulose to a considerable extent, without at the same
time altering their relative positions, and thus provides an exploded view
of the fibre, so that its architecture can be studied. In particular, the
technique sheds light on the problem of water accessibility; it shows where
in the fibre the imbibed water goes. At the same time it reveals the shape
and the size of the cellulose crystallites. It is generally understood that the
water swelling of cellulose is intercrystalline; the crystalline regions are
impermeable to water on account of the very regular van der Waals and
hydrogen bonding that arises from the regular arrangement of the mole-
cules. Evidently the microfibrils, the thinnest supermolecular building units
into which the fibre splits during polymerization swelling, may be identified
as the crystalline regions of cotton cellulose.
The structure of the cotton fibre may therefore be pictured as an array
of elastic crystalline microfibrils held together principally by hydrogen bonds
formed between the hydroxyl groups residing on the surfaces of microfibrils.
This bonding is weak since it is irregular, depending on the degree of
perfection with which the microfibrils are aligned with respect to one
another; a whole range of bond strengths is thus thought to exist in the
inler-microfibrillar spaces. This variable bonding probably accounts for
the properties of cotton fibre that are usually ascribed to the so-called
amorphous regions of cellulose.
The very strong lateral cohesive forces operating within a microfibril
may be either entirely of the secondary type or may, in part at least, be
due to primary chemical bonds, i.e. either the cellulose chains are parallel
to each other and to the axis of the microfibril, or they form regular folds
or spirals. It may prove possible to decide with the aid of the electron
microscope which type of molecular arrangements does in fact obtain.
Since polymerization swelling is bound to result in the breaking of some
of the microfibrils, the examination of the broken ends at sufficiently high
magnification may give the answer to this question.

The author is indebted to Mr R. J. E. Cumberbirch and Drs F. E. Holmes
and A. R. Urquhart for help[ul discussion and criticism of the manuscript.

The Cotton Silk and Man-made Fibres Research Association,
Shirley Institute, Didsbury, Manchester
(Received February 1965)
J. D L U G O S Z

1 ROLLINS, M. L., MOORE, A. T. and TRIPP, V. W. Text. Res. J. 1963, 33, 117
GLAUERT, M. G. in Techniques for Electron Microscopy (Ed. KAY, D.), pp 179-186.
Blackwell: Oxford, 1961
a KRANITZ, M. and SEAL, M. Fifth Internat. Congr. Electron Microscopy, Philadel-
phia, FF7 (1962)
4 CLIBBENS, D. A. and LITTLE, A. H. J. Text. Inst. 1936, 27, T285
•5 KLING, W., LANGNER-IRLE, C. and NEME'~SCHEK, T. Melliand Textilber. 1958, 39, 879
6 BAMFORD, C. H., BARB, W. G., JENKINS, A. D. and ONYON, P. F. Kinetics of Vinyl
Polymerization by Radical Mechanism, p 76. Butterworths: London, 1958
7 TROMMSDORFF, E., KOHLE, E. and LAGELLY, P. Makromol. Chem. 1948, 1, 169
8 BORYSKO, E. J. Biophys. Biochem. Cytol. 1956, 2, No. 4, suppl. 3