Architecture of Hydrated Multilayer Poly(methacrylic acid) Hydrogels: The Effect of Solution pH

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Polymer Science and Engineering


We report on the evolution of the internal structure of dry and hydrated poly(methacrylic acid) (PMAA) hydrogels by quantifying the extent of layer interdiffusion in hydrogen-bonded (HB) films and upon subsequent cross-linking and hydration. These hydrogels are produced by ethylenediamine (EDA)-assisted cross-linking of PMAA in spin-assisted (SA) and dipped HB PMAA/poly(N-vinylpyrrolidone) (PVPON) multilayers followed by complete release of PVPON at pH 8 due to severing of hydrogen bonds with the PMAA network. Internal hydrogel architecture was monitored by neutron reflectometry using deuterated dPMAA marker layers. We found that even in the highly stratified SA HB films, layer interdiffusion extends over three (PMAA/PVPON) bilayers. Cross-linking of this film induces marker layer interpenetration more deeply into the surrounding material, extending over five layers. The volume fraction of dPMAA at the nominal center of a marker layer decreased from 0.65 to 0.51 after cross-linking. Hydrated SA hydrogels preserve well-organized layering and exhibit a persistent differential swelling with two distinct swelling ratios corresponding to MAA cross-link-rich and cross-link-poor strata. In contrast, layer organization in dipped films decays rapidly with distance from the silicon substrate. Both types of hydrogel swelled by factors of two and four times their dry total thicknesses at pH 5 and 7, respectively, and exhibited elevated surface roughness upon hydration. To fit the neutron reflectometry data, a self-consistent model was developed wherein the amount of PMAA initially deposited was preserved through subsequent chemical modification and hydration. Our results open opportunities for the development of thin hydrogels with a regulated structure, which can be utilized for efficient sensing, protection, activation, and rapid response in an aqueous environment. The internal morphological hierarchy of these multilayer hydrogels affords a means of fine-tuning their response to pH, temperature, or light to a degree rarely possible for randomly cross-linked responsive networks or brushes.

Publication Title

ACS Applied Polymer Materials

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