Stretching-induced ion complexation in physical polyampholyte hydrogels
Recently, we have developed a series of charge balanced polyampholyte (PA) physical hydrogels by random copolymerization in water, which show extraordinarily high toughness, self-healing ability and viscoelasticity. The excellent performance of PA hydrogels is ascribed to dynamic ionic bond formation through inter- and intra-chain interactions. The randomness results in ionic bonds of wide strength distribution, the strong bonds, which serve as permanent crosslinking, imparting the elasticity, while the weak bonds reversibly break and re-form, dissipating energy. In this work, we developed a simple physical method, called a pre-stretching method, to promote the performance of PA hydrogels. By imposing a pre-stretching on the sample in the as-prepared state, ion complexation during dialysis is prominently accelerated and the final performance is largely promoted. Further analysis suggests that the strong bond formation induced by pre-stretching is responsible for the change in final performance. Pre-stretching decreases the entropy of the system and increases the chain alignment, resulting in an increased possibility for strong bond formation.