Although tremendous effort has been focused on enhancing the mechanical properties of nacre-mimetic materials, conservation of high stiffness and strength against hydration-induced decay of mechanical properties at high humidity remains a fundamental challenge in such water-borne high-performance materials. Herein, we demonstrate that ionic supramolecular bonds, introduced by infiltration of divalent Cu2+ ions, allow efficient stabilization of the mechanical properties of self-assembled water-borne nacre-mimetics based on sustainable sodium carboxymethylcellulose (Na+CMC) and natural sodium montmorillonite nanoclay (Na+MTM) against high humidity (95% RH). The mechanical properties in the highly hydrated state (Young's modulus up to 13.5 GPa and tensile strength up to 125 MPa) are in fact comparable to a range of non-crosslinked nacre-mimetic materials in the dry state. Moreover, the Cu2+-treated nacre-inspired materials display synergetic mechanical properties as found in a simultaneous improvement of stiffness, strength and toughness, as compared to the pristine material. Significant inelastic deformation takes place considering the highly reinforced state. This contrasts the typical behaviour of tight, covalent crosslinks and is suggested to originate from a sacrificial, dynamic breakage and rebinding of transient supramolecular ionic bonds. Considering easy access to a large range of ionic interactions and alteration of counter-ion charge via external stimuli, we foresee responsive and adaptive mechanical properties in highly reinforced and stiff bio-inspired bulk nanocomposites and in other bio-inspired materials, e.g. nanocellulose papers and peptide-based materials.
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