Fractography of poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) hydrogel networks crosslinked with mechanofluorophores using confocal laser scanning microscopy†
Due to their soft and brittle nature, the mechanical characterization of polymer hydrogels is a difficult task employing traditional testing equipment. Here, we endowed poly(N-isopropyl acrylamide) (PNIPAAm) hydrogel networks with Diels–Alder adducts of π-extended anthracenes as mechanofluorophore crosslinkers. After swelling the networks with varying amounts of water and subjecting them to force, we visualized the subsequent fluorescence caused by covalent bond scission with confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) and related the intensities to the macroscopic fracture mechanics and the elastic moduli recorded with traditional uniaxial compression. The sensitivity of the mechanofluorophores allowed the analysis of low levels of mechanical stress produced via a hand-induced needle-puncturing process and, thus, is an alternative to conventional force application methods. The detection and precise localization of covalent bond scission via CLSM helps elucidating the interrelationship between molecular structure and the macroscopic properties of chemically crosslinked polymeric hydrogels. We believe that this micro-scale mechanophore-assisted fractography can establish a new paradigm for the mechanical analysis of soft matter in fields covering traditional polymer and life sciences.
- This article is part of the themed collection: Polymer Chemistry Emerging Investigators