Hydrogels are soft, stretchy solids made from polymer chains immersed in water. Engineers hope these materials will be good candidates for medical implants, but to reach that goal, hydrogels need to be durable enough to withstand repeated stretching and contortion without tearing. One team has built a better hydrogel by encouraging entanglement within the gel’s polymer network.
The polymers inside a hydrogel form their network with two main components: physical entanglements between polymer chains and chemical cross-links. If you imagine the polymers as a tangle of yarn, the cross-links would be spots where pieces of yarn are knotted together and the entanglements are spots where strands wrap and cross without knotting. If you pull on the network, cross-links (knots) will allow very little stretching, whereas the looser entanglements can stretch and deform without tearing. In a hydrogel with lots of entangled polymers but very few cross-links, the material is strong and stretchy without becoming brittle or easily torn. (Video credit: Science; research credit: J. Kim et al.)