Significant research has been directed toward the incorporation of bioactive plant extracts or essential oils (EOs) into polymers to endow the latter with antimicrobial functionality. EOs offer a unique combination of having broad antimicrobial activity from a natural source, generally recognized as safe (GRAS) recognition in the US, and a volatile nature. However, their volatility also presents a major challenge in their incorporation into polymers by conventional high-temperature-processing techniques. Herein, antimicrobial polypropylene (PP) cast films were produced by incorporating carvacrol (a model EO) or carvacrol, loaded into halloysite nanotubes (HNTs), via melt compounding. We studied the composition-structure-property relationships in these systems, focusing on the effect of carvacrol on the composition of the films, the PP crystalline phase and its morphology and the films’ mechanical and antimicrobial properties. For the first time, molecular dynamics simulations were applied to reveal the complex interactions between the components of these carvacrol-containing systems. We show that strong molecular interactions between PP and carvacrol minimize the loss of this highly-volatile EO during high-temperature polymer processing, enabling semi-industrial scale production. The resulting films exhibit outstanding antimicrobial properties against model microorganisms (Escherichia coli
and Alternaria alternata
). The PP/(HNTs-carvacrol) nanocomposite films, containing the carvacrol-loaded HNTs, display a higher level of crystalline order, superior mechanical properties and prolonged release of carvacrol, in comparison to PP/carvacrol blends. These properties are ascribed to the role of HNTs in these nanocomposites and their effect on the PP matrix and retained carvacrol content.
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