In situ characterization of structural dynamics in swelling hydrogels
Characterizing the structural morphology and the local viscoelastic properties of soft complex systems raises significant challenges. Here we introduce a dynamic light scattering method capable of in situ, continuous monitoring of structural changes in evolving systems such as swelling gels. We show that the inherently non-stationary dynamics of embedded probes can be followed using partially coherent radiation, which effectively isolates only single scattering contributions even during the dramatic changes in the scattering regime. Using a simple and robust experimental setup, we demonstrate the ability to continuously monitor the structural dynamics of chitosan hydrogels formed by the Ag+ ion-triggered gelation during their long-term swelling process. We demonstrate that both the local viscoelastic properties of the suspending medium and an effective cage size experienced by diffusing probe particles loaded into the hydrogel can be recovered and used to describe the structural dynamics of hydrogels with different levels of cross-linking. This characterization capability is critical for defining and controlling the hydrogel performance in different biomedical applications.