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!
Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern
20.07.2018 | Princeton University
Relax, just break it
20.07.2018 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory
A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.
The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
23.07.2018 | Health and Medicine
23.07.2018 | Earth Sciences
23.07.2018 | Science Education