Strong, tough and mechanically self-recoverable poly(vinyl alcohol)/alginate dual-physical double-network hydrogels with large cross-link density contrast
Strong and tough poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA)/alginate hydrogen-bonded-ionic dual-physical double-network (DN) hydrogels have been successfully prepared by a facile route of a freeze–thaw (25–25–25 °C) cycle followed by concentrated (1.0 mol L−1 of) aqueous-Ca2+ immersion of PVA/Na alginate (SA) mixed aqueous solutions. It was found that, at mole ratios of the PVA- to SA repeat units of 20/1 to 80/1, the DN gels likely evolved a semi-interpenetrating polymer network (IPN) morphology of rigid alginate networks dispersed in while interlocking with ductile PVA network to accomplish DN synergy that gave their high strength and toughness, where the high alginate rigidity originated probably from its dense cross-link induced syneresis and dispersion along crosslink-defective voids to result in little internal stress concentration. Tentatively mechanistically, as the 20/1–80/1 DN gels were stretched steadily, their mechanical response was gradually differentiated into distinct synergistic states: the sparsely hydrogen-bonded PVA served as a ductile matrix to bear small fractions of the established stresses at its large elongations; whereas the densely ionically (i.e. Ca2+) cross-linked alginate functioned as a rigid skeleton to sustain the remaining larger stresses upon its smaller local strains. Promisingly, this ductile-rigid matrix-skeleton synergistic mechanism of semi-IPN morphology may be universally extended to all A/B DN hydrogels of large A–B rigidity (or cross-link density) contrast, whether the cross-link nature of network(s) A or B is covalent, ionic, hydrogen bonded or van der Waals interacted. The strong and tough DN gels also displayed satisfactory self-recovery of viscoelastic behaviour, in that their Young's modulus and dissipated energy in the uniaxial tensile mode and dynamic storage and loss moduli in the oscillatory shear mode all recovered significantly from non-linear viscoelastic regimes despite different degrees of failure to revert to (quasi)linear viscoelasticity.