A study of conductive hydrogel composites of pH-responsive microgels and carbon nanotubes†
Conductive gel composites are attracting considerable attention because of their interesting electrical and mechanical properties. Here, we report conductive gel composites constructed using only colloidal particles as building blocks. The composites were prepared from mixed dispersions of vinyl-functionalised pH-responsive microgel particles (MGs) and multi-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs). MGs are crosslinked pH-responsive polymer colloid particles that swell when the pH approaches the pKa of the particles. Two MG systems were used which contained ethyl acrylate (EA) or methyl acrylate (MA) and around 30 mol% of methacrylic acid (MAA). The MA-based MG is a new pH-responsive system. The mixed MG/CNT dispersions formed thixotropic physical gels. Those gels were transformed into covalent interlinked electrically conducting doubly crosslinked microgel/CNT composites (DX MG/CNT) by free-radical reaction. The MGs provided the dual roles of dispersant for the CNTs and macro-crosslinker for the composite. TEM data showed evidence for strong attraction between the MG and the CNTs which facilitated CNT dispersion. An SEM study confirmed CNT dispersion throughout the composites. The mechanical properties of the composites were studied using dynamic rheology and uniaxial compression measurements. Surprisingly, both the ductility and the modulus of the gel composites increased with increasing CNT concentration used for their preparation. Human adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells (AD-MSCs) exposed to DX MG/CNT maintained over 99% viability with metabolic activity retained over 7 days, which indicated non-cytotoxicity. The results of this study suggest that our approach could be used to prepare other DX MG/CNT gel composites and that these materials may lead to future injectable gels for advanced soft-tissue repair.