Reversible covalent locking of a supramolecular hydrogel via UV-controlled anthracene dimerization†
Supramolecular hydrogels gained significant attention as shear-thinning, self-healing materials. However, the introduction of non-covalent crosslinks inherently decreases the strength and stability of the hydrogel. In this work, we developed a novel supramolecular hydrogel that undergoes a reversible transformation to the corresponding covalently crosslinked hydrogel upon UV-irradiation. The supramolecular hydrogel was developed based on the ternary host–guest interaction of two anthracene moieties and one large macrocyclic host. Anthracene functionalized poly(N-acryloylmorpholine)s were synthesized by post-polymerization modification of a copolymer consisting of N-acryloylmorpholine and an activated ester comonomer, whereby two different polymers were prepared having either neutral anthracene side-chains or carrying a positive charge next to the anthracene to enhance the interaction with the host. The binding affinity of the anthracene side chains with and without an additional cationic charge were studied with two macrocyclic hosts, namely cucurbituril and γ-cyclodextrin (γ-CD) by UV-Vis titration revealing a markedly stronger binding in the presence of the cationic charge due to additional ion-dipole one of the macrocyclic hosts, cucurbituril. Subsequently, the effect of the binding affinity on the hydrogelation was investigated, indicating that the stronger binding affinity facilitated the hydrogel formation at lower concentration. Finally, the reversible transformation of the supramolecular hydrogel to a chemical hydrogel by anthracene dimerization was studied by the UV irradiation of the hydrogel at 365 nm for covalent crosslinking or at 254 nm for decrosslinking. It could be demonstrated that the dynamic nature of the hydrogel, that is responsible for the shear-thinning behavior, was indeed lost upon UV-irradiation indicative of the formation of a covalently crosslinked hydrogel. The capabilities of the formed supramolecular hydrogel that is easily processable and able to reversibly convert to a chemical hydrogel, provides potential applications in applying mechanically robust covalently crosslinked hydrogels in complex shapes and difficult to reach locations making use of the dynamic nature of the supramolecular crosslinks.