Dually cross-linked single network poly(acrylic acid) hydrogels with superior mechanical properties and water absorbency†
Poly(acrylic acid) (PAA) hydrogels with superior mechanical properties, based on a single network structure with dual cross-linking, are prepared by one-pot free radical polymerization. The network structure of the PAA hydrogels is composed of dual cross-linking: a dynamic and reversible ionic cross-linking among the PAA chains enabled by Fe3+ ions, and a sparse covalent cross-linking enabled by a covalent cross-linker (Bis). Under deformation, the covalently cross-linked PAA chains remain intact to maintain their original configuration, while the Fe3+-enabled ionic cross-linking among the PAA chains is broken to dissipate energy and then recombined. It is found that the mechanical properties of the PAA hydrogels are significantly influenced by the contents of covalent cross-linkers, Fe3+ ions and water, which can be adjusted within a substantial range and thus broaden the applications of the hydrogels. Meanwhile, the PAA hydrogels have excellent recoverability based on the dynamic and reversible ionic cross-linking enabled by Fe3+ ions. Moreover, the swelling capacity of the PAA hydrogels is as high as 1800 times in deionized water due to the synergistic effects of ionic and covalent cross-linkings. The combination of balanced mechanical properties, efficient recoverability, high swelling capacity and facile preparation provides a new method to obtain high-performance hydrogels.