Bi-functional silica nanoparticles for simultaneous enhancement of mechanical strength and swelling capacity of hydrogels
A combination of strong load-bearing capacity and high swelling degree is desired in hydrogels for many applications including drug delivery, tissue engineering, and biomedical engineering. However, a compromising relationship exists between these two most important characteristics of hydrogels. Improving both of these important properties simultaneously in a single hydrogel material is still beyond the satisfactory limit. Herein, we report a novel approach to address this problem by introducing a silica-based bi-functional 3D crosslinker. Our bi-functional silica nanoparticles (BF-Si NPs) possess amine groups that are able to offer pseudo-crosslinking effects induced by inter-cohesive bonding, and acrylate groups that can form conventional covalent crosslinking in the same hydrogel. We fabricated polyacrylic acid (PAc-Si) and polyacrylamide (PAm-Si) hydrogels using our BF-Si NPs via free radical polymerization to demonstrate this concept. Incorporation of the BF-Si crosslinkers into the hydrogels has resulted in a large enhancement in the mechanical properties compared to conventional hydrogel crosslinked with N,N′-methylene bisacrylamide (MBA). For instance, tensile strength and the toughness increased by more than 6 times and 10 times, respectively, upon replacing MBA with BF-Si in polyacrylamide hydrogel. Moreover, the hydrogels crosslinked with BF-Si exhibited a remarkably elevated level of swelling capacity in the aqueous medium. Our facile yet smart strategy of employing the 3D bi-functional crosslinker for combining high swelling degree and strong mechanical properties in the same hydrogels can be extended to the fabrication of many similar acrylate or vinyl polymer hydrogels.