Photo credit: Melanie Gonick/MITIf you leave a cube of Jell-O on the kitchen counter, eventually its water will evaporate, leaving behind a shrunken, hardened mass—hardly an appetizing confection. The same is true for hydrogels. Made mostly of water, these gelatin-like polymer materials are stretchy and absorbent until they inevitably dry out.
Now engineers at MIT have found a way to prevent hydrogels from dehydrating, with a technique that could lead to longer-lasting contact lenses, stretchy microfluidic devices, flexible bioelectronics, and even artificial skin.
The engineers, led by Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, devised a method to robustly bind hydrogels to elastomers—elastic polymers such as rubber and silicone that are stretchy like hydrogels yet impervious to water. They found that coating hydrogels with a thin elastomer layer provided a water-trapping barrier that kept the hydrogel moist, flexible, and robust. The results were published June 27 in the journal Nature Communications.
Zhao says the group took inspiration for its design from human skin, which is composed of an outer epidermis layer bonded to an underlying dermis layer. The epidermis acts as a shield, protecting the dermis and its network of nerves and capillaries, as well as the rest of the body’s muscles and organs, from drying out.
The team’s hydrogel-elastomer hybrid is similar in design to, and in fact multiple times tougher than, the bond between the epidermis and dermis. The team developed a physical model to quantitatively guide the design of various hydrogel-elastomer bonds. In addition, the researchers are exploring various applications for the hybrid material, including artificial skin. In the same paper, they report inventing a technique to pattern tiny channels into the hybrid material, similar to blood vessels. They have also embedded complex ionic circuits in the material to mimic nerve networks.
“We hope this work will pave the way to synthetic skin, or even robots with very soft, flexible skin with biological functions,” Zhao says.
The paper’s lead author is MIT graduate student Hyunwoo Yuk. Co-authors include MIT graduate students German Alberto Parada and Xinyue Liu and former Zhao group postdoc Teng Zhang, now an assistant professor at Syracuse University.