Polymer networks are complex systems consisting of molecular components. Whereas the properties of the individual components are typically well understood by most chemists, translating that chemical insight into polymer networks themselves is limited by the statistical and poorly defined nature of network structures. As a result, it is challenging, if not currently impossible, to extrapolate from the molecular behavior of components to the full range of performance and properties of the entire polymer network. Polymer networks therefore present an unrealized, important, and interdisciplinary opportunity to exert molecular-level, chemical control on material macroscopic properties. A barrier to sophisticated molecular approaches to polymer networks is that the techniques for characterizing the molecular structure of networks are often unfamiliar to many scientists. Here, we present a critical overview of the current characterization techniques available to understand the relation between the molecular properties and the resulting performance and behavior of polymer networks, in the absence of added fillers. We highlight the methods available to characterize the chemistry and molecular-level properties of individual polymer strands and junctions, the gelation process by which strands form networks, the structure of the resulting network, and the dynamics and mechanics of the final material. The purpose is not to serve as a detailed manual for conducting these measurements but rather to unify the underlying principles, point out remaining challenges, and provide a concise overview by which chemists can plan characterization strategies that suit their research objectives. Because polymer networks cannot often be sufficiently characterized with a single method, strategic combinations of multiple techniques are typically required for their molecular characterization.
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