Controllable growth of interpenetrating or random copolymer networks†
Interpenetrating and random copolymer networks are vital in a number of industrial applications, including the fabrication of automotive parts, damping materials, and tissue engineering scaffolds. We develop a theoretical model for a process that enables the controlled growth of interpenetrating network (IPNs), or a random copolymer network (RCN) of specified size and mechanical properties. In this process, a primary gel “seed” is immersed into a solution containing the secondary monomer and crosslinkers. After the latter species are absorbed into the primary network, the absorbed monomers are polymerized to form the secondary polymer chains, which then can undergo further crosslinking to form an IPN, or undergo inter-chain exchange with the existing network to form a RCN. The swelling and elastic properties of the IPN and RCN networks can be tailored by modifying the monomer and crosslinker concentrations in the surrounding solution, or by tuning the enthalpic interactions between the primary polymer, secondary monomer and solvent through a proper choice of chemistry. This process can be used repeatedly to fabricate gels with a range of mechanical properties from stiff, rigid materials to soft, flexible networks, allowing the method to meet the materials requirements of a variety of applications.