A team of experts in mechanics, materials science, and tissue engineering at Harvard have created an extremely stretchy and tough gel that may pave the way to replacing damaged cartilage in human joints.
The researchers pinned both ends of the new gel in clamps and stretched it to 21 times its initial length before it broke. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jeong-Yun Sun
Called a hydrogel, because its main ingredient is water, the new material is a hybrid of two weak gels that combine to create something much stronger. Not only can this new gel stretch to 21 times its original length, but it is also exceptionally tough, self-healing, and biocompatible—a valuable collection of attributes that opens up new opportunities in medicine and tissue engineering.
The material, its properties, and a simple method of synthesis are described in the September 6 issue of Nature.
To create the tough new hydrogel, they combined two common polymers. The primary component is polyacrylamide, known for its use in soft contact lenses and as the electrophoresis gel that separates DNA fragments in biology labs; the second component is alginate, a seaweed extract that is frequently used to thicken food.
Separately, these gels are both quite weak—alginate, for instance, can stretch to only 1.2 times its length before it breaks. Combined in an 8:1 ratio, however, the two polymers form a complex network of crosslinked chains that reinforce one another. The chemical structure of this network allows the molecules to pull apart very slightly over a large area instead of allowing the gel to crack.
The alginate portion of the gel consists of polymer chains that form weak ionic bonds with one another, capturing calcium ions (added to the water) in the process. When the gel is stretched, some of these bonds between chains break—or "unzip," as the researchers put it—releasing the calcium. As a result, the gel expands slightly, but the polymer chains themselves remain intact. Meanwhile, the polyacrylamide chains form a grid-like structure that bonds covalently (very tightly) with the alginate chains.
Therefore, if the gel acquires a tiny crack as it stretches, the polyacrylamide grid helps to spread the pulling force over a large area, tugging on the alginate's ionic bonds and unzipping them here and there. The research team showed that even with a huge crack, a critically large hole, the hybrid gel can still stretch to 17 times its initial length.
Importantly, the new hydrogel is capable of maintaining its elasticity and toughness over multiple stretches. Provided the gel has some time to relax between stretches, the ionic bonds between the alginate and the calcium can "re-zip," and the researchers have shown that this process can be accelerated by raising the ambient temperature.
The group's combined expertise in mechanics, materials science, and bioengineering enabled the group to apply two concepts from mechanics—crack bridging and energy dissipation—to a new problem.
"The unusually high stretchability and toughness of this gel, along with recovery, are exciting," says Suo. "Now that we've demonstrated that this is possible, we can use it as a model system for studying the mechanics of hydrogels further, and explore various applications."
"It's very promising," Suo adds.
Beyond artificial cartilage, the researchers suggest that the new hydrogel could be used in soft robotics, optics, artificial muscle, as a tough protective covering for wounds, or "any other place where we need hydrogels of high stretchability and high toughness."
Additional coauthors included Xuanhe Zhao, a former Ph.D. student and postdoc at SEAS, now a faculty member at Duke University; Widusha R. K. Illeperuma, a graduate student at SEAS; Ovijit Chaudhuri, a postdoc in Mooney's lab; and Kyu Hwan Oh, Sun's former adviser and a faculty member at Seoul National University in Korea.
This work was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at Harvard. The researchers also individually received support from the NSF Research Triangle MRSEC, a Haythornthwaite Research Initiation grant, the National Research Foundation of Korea, an Alexander von Humboldt Award, and Harvard University.
Caroline Perry | EurekAlert!
One in 5 materials chemistry papers may be wrong, study suggests
15.12.2017 | Georgia Institute of Technology
Scientists channel graphene to understand filtration and ion transport into cells
11.12.2017 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
DNA molecules that follow specific instructions could offer more precise molecular control of synthetic chemical systems, a discovery that opens the door for engineers to create molecular machines with new and complex behaviors.
Researchers have created chemical amplifiers and a chemical oscillator using a systematic method that has the potential to embed sophisticated circuit...
MPQ scientists achieve long storage times for photonic quantum bits which break the lower bound for direct teleportation in a global quantum network.
Concerning the development of quantum memories for the realization of global quantum networks, scientists of the Quantum Dynamics Division led by Professor...
Researchers have developed a water cloaking concept based on electromagnetic forces that could eliminate an object's wake, greatly reducing its drag while...
Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.
To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...
The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.
Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
07.12.2017 | Event News
15.12.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
15.12.2017 | Materials Sciences
15.12.2017 | Life Sciences