Hydrogels are used as scaffolds for tissue engineering, vehicles for drug delivery, actuators for optics and fluidics, and model extracellular matrices for biological studies. The scope of hydrogel applications, however, is often severely limited by their mechanical behaviour. Most hydrogels do not exhibit high stretchability; for example, an alginate hydrogel ruptures when stretched to about 1.2 times its original length. Some synthetic elastic hydrogels have achieved stretches in the range 10–20, but these values are markedly reduced in samples containing notches. Most hydrogels are brittle, with fracture energies of about 10?J?m?2 as compared with ~1,000?J?m?2 for cartilage and ~10,000?J?m?2 for natural rubbers.
Intense efforts are devoted to synthesizing hydrogels with improved mechanical properties; certain synthetic gels have reached fracture energies of 100–1,000?J?m?2. Here we report the synthesis of hydrogels from polymers forming ionically and covalently crosslinked networks. Although such gels contain ~90% water, they can be stretched beyond 20 times their initial length, and have fracture energies of ~9,000?J?m?2. Even for samples containing notches, a stretch of 17 is demonstrated.
We attribute the gels’ toughness to the synergy of two mechanisms: crack bridging by the network of covalent crosslinks, and hysteresis by unzipping the network of ionic crosslinks. Furthermore, the network of covalent crosslinks preserves the memory of the initial state, so that much of the large deformation is removed on unloading. The unzipped ionic crosslinks cause internal damage, which heals by re-zipping. These gels may serve as model systems to explore mechanisms of deformation and energy dissipation, and expand the scope of hydrogel applications.