Evaluation of the subtle trade-off between physical stability and thermo-responsiveness in crosslinked methylcellulose hydrogels†
Methylcellulose (MC) hydrogels, undergoing sol–gel reversible transition upon temperature changes, lend themselves to smart system applications. However, their reduced stability in aqueous environment and unsatisfactory mechanical properties limit the breadth of their possible applications. Here, a crosslinking strategy based on citric acid (CA) was developed: exploiting three crosslinking parameters (CA concentration, crosslinking time, and crosslinking temperature) by a design of experiment approach, optimized crosslinked MC hydrogels (MC-L, MC-M, MC-H) were obtained and characterized. Swelling tests in water revealed the effectiveness of CA crosslinking in modulating the water uptake of MC hydrogels. Both theoretical and experimental analyses showed an increase in the crosslinking density by the rationale selection of process parameters. The extent of sol–gel transition was assessed by swelling tests, Raman spectroscopy and rheological analyses. MC-M samples demonstrated to preserve their thermo-responsive behavior around their lower critical solution temperature (LCST), while showing increased stability and enhanced mechanical properties when compared to pristine MC hydrogels.