Rate-based approach for controlling the mechanical properties of ‘thiol–ene’ hydrogels formed with visible light†
The mechanical properties of synthetic hydrogels traditionally have been controlled with the concentration, molecular weight, or stoichiometry of the macromolecular building blocks used for hydrogel formation. Recently, the rate of formation has been recognized as an important and effective handle for controlling the mechanical properties of these water-swollen polymer networks, owing to differences in network heterogeneity (e.g., defects) that arise based on the rate of gelation. Building upon this, in this work, we investigate a rate-based approach for controlling mechanical properties of hydrogels both initially and temporally with light. Specifically, synthetic hydrogels are formed with visible light-initiated thiol–ene ‘click’ chemistry (PEG-8-norbornene, dithiol linker, LAP photoinitiator with LED lamp centered at 455 nm), using irradiation conditions to control the rate of formation and the mechanical properties of the resulting hydrogels. Further, defects within these hydrogels were subsequently exploited for temporal modulation of mechanical properties with a secondary cure using low doses of long wavelength UV light (365 nm). The elasticity of the hydrogel, as measured with Young's and shear moduli, was observed to increase with increasing light intensity and concentration of photoinitiator used for hydrogel formation. In situ measurements of end group conversion during hydrogel formation with magic angle spinning (MAS 1H NMR) correlated with these mechanical properties measurements, suggesting that both dangling end groups and looping contribute to the observed mechanical properties. Dangling end groups provide reactive handles for temporal stiffening of hydrogels with a secondary UV-initiated thiol–ene polymerization, where an increase in Young's modulus by a factor of ∼2.5× was observed. These studies demonstrate how the rate of photopolymerization can be tuned with irradiation wavelength, intensity, and time to control the properties of synthetic hydrogels, which may prove useful in a variety of applications from coatings to biomaterials for controlled cell culture and regenerative medicine.
- This article is part of the themed collection: Pioneering Investigators