Many emerging materials, such as ultrastable glasses1,2 of interest for phone displays and OLED television screens, owe their properties to a gradient of enhanced mobility at the surface of glass-forming liquids. The discovery of this surface mobility enhancement3–5 has reshaped our understanding of the behaviour of glass formers and of how to fashion them into improved materials. In polymeric glasses, these interfacial modifications are complicated by the existence of a second length scale—the size of the polymer chain—as well as the length scale of the interfacial mobility gradient6–9. Here we present simulations, theory and time-resolved surface nano-creep experiments to reveal that this two-scale nature of glassy polymer surfaces drives the emergence of a transient rubbery, entangled-like surface behaviour even in polymers comprised of short, subentangled chains. We find that this effect emerges from superposed gradients in segmental dynamics and chain conformational statistics. The lifetime of this rubbery behaviour, which will have broad implications in constraining surface relaxations central to applications including tribology, adhesion, and surface healing of polymeric glasses, extends as the material is cooled. The surface layers suffer a general breakdown in time−temperature superposition (TTS), a fundamental tenet of polymer physics and rheology. This finding may require a reevaluation of strategies for the prediction of long-time properties in polymeric glasses with high interfacial areas. We expect that this interfacial transient elastomer effect and TTS breakdown should normally occur in macromolecular systems ranging from nanocomposites to thin films, where interfaces dominate material properties5,10.
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