Competitive Supramolecular Associations Mediate the Viscoelasticity of Binary Hydrogels

E Vereroudakis and M Bantawa and RPM Lafleur and D Parisi and NM Matsumoto and JW Peeters and E Del Gado and EW Meijer and D Vlassopoulos, ACS CENTRAL SCIENCE, 6, 1401-1411 (2020).

DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.0c00279

Supramolecular polymers are known to form strong and resilient hydrogels which can take up large amounts of water while exhibiting ease of processing and self-healing. They also possess similarities with networks of biological macromolecules. The combination of these features makes supramolecular polymers ideal candidates for studying mechanisms and consequences of self-assembly, which are relevant to biological materials. At the same time, this renders investigations of mixed hydrogels based on different supramolecular compounds necessary, since this substantially widens their applicability. Here, we address unusual viscoelastic properties of a class of binary hydrogels made by mixing fibrillar supramolecular polymers that are formed from two compounds: 1,3,5-benzene-tricarboxamide decorated with aliphatic chains terminated by tetra(ethylene glycol) (BTA) and a 20 kg/mol telechelic poly(ethylene glycol) decorated with the same hydrogen bonding BTA motif on both ends (BTA-PEG-BTA). Using a suite of experimental and simulation techniques, we find that the respective single-compound-based supramolecular systems form very different networks which exhibit drastically different rheology. More strikingly, mixing the compounds results in a nonmonotonic dependence of modulus and viscosity on composition, suggesting a competition between interactions of the two compounds, which can then be used to fine-tune the mechanical properties. Simulations offer insight into the nature of this competition and their remarkable qualitative agreement with the experimental results is promising for the design of mixed hydrogels with desired and tunable properties. Their combination with a sensitive dynamic probe (here rheology) offer a powerful toolbox to explore the unique properties of binary hydrogel mixtures.

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