Self-curing super-stretchable polymer/microgel complex coacervate gels without covalent bond formation†
Elastic physical gels are highly desirable because they can be conveniently prepared and readily shaped. Unfortunately, many elastic physical gels prepared in water require in situ free-radical polymerization during the gel formation stage. In contrast, complex coacervate gels are physical gels that can be prepared by simply mixing two pre-formed oppositely-charged polyelectrolytes. However, as far as we are aware, highly elastic complex coacervate gels have not yet been reported. Herein, we combine polyanionic microgel particles with a well-known commercially-available cationic polyelectrolyte to prepare polymer/microgel complex coacervate (PMCC) physical gels. This new family of gels requires annealing at only 37 °C and behaves like a covalent gel but does not form covalent bonds. Thermal reconfiguration of the dynamic ionic bonds transforms the shapeable pre-gel into a highly elastic gel that is super-stretchable, adhesive, self-healing, highly swellable and can be further toughened using Ca2+ as an ionic crosslinker. Our PMCC gels have excellent potential for applications as engineering gels and structural biomaterials, as well as for wound healing and water purification.