Stimuli-responsive polysaccharides that can undergo a sol–gel transition in response to localized electrical signals provide a unique opportunity to electroaddress biological components at device interfaces. Most polysaccharide electroaddressing mechanisms use electrochemical reactions to generate pH gradients that can locally neutralize the polysaccharide and induce its reversible sol–gel transition to form a hydrogel film adjacent to the electrode surface. The calcium-responsive polysaccharide alginate is an exception; it may electrodeposit without requiring extreme pH gradients and thus may provide a means to electroaddress pH-sensitive biological components. Here, we use a novel device to characterize the mechanism for the anodic electrodeposition of a calcium alginate hydrogel. This device consists of a transparent fluidic channel with built-in sidewall electrodes that allows Ca–alginate electrodeposition to be directly measured by non-destructive optical and spectroscopic methods. We hypothesize a 3-step mechanism for calcium–alginate electrodeposition: (i) water is electrolyzed to locally generate protons (or hydronium ions); (ii) these protons are consumed by reacting with suspended CaCO3 particles and this “buffering” reaction generates a gradient in soluble Ca2+; and (iii) the locally generated Ca2+ ions interact with alginate to induce its sol–gel transition. We verified this electrodeposition mechanism using pH-responsive dyes to observe the local pH gradients during gel formation, Ca2+ indicator dyes to observe the Ca2+ gradient, and in situ Raman spectroscopy to demonstrate a strong interaction between soluble Ca2+ and alginate. Importantly, these results demonstrate electrodeposition without the need for a substantial pH excursion from neutrality. Thus, calcium alginate appears especially well-suited for electroaddressing labile biological components for applications in biosensors, biofabrication and BioMEMS.
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