A hydrogel is a solid object predominantly composed of water. The water is held together by a cross-linked 3D mesh, which is formed from components such as polymer molecules or colloidal particles. Hydrogels can be found in a wide range of application areas, for example food (think of agar, gelatine, tapioca, alginate containing products), and health (wound dressing, contact lenses, hygiene products, tissue engineering scaffolds, and drug delivery systems).
In Nature hydrogels can be found widely in soft organisms. Jellyfish spring to mind. These are intriguing creatures and form an inspiration for an area called soft robotics, a discipline seek to fabricate soft structures capable of adaptation, ultimately superseding mechanical hard-robots. Hydrogels are an ideal building block for the design of soft robots as their material characteristics can be tailored. It is however, challenging to introduce and program responsive autonomous behaviour and complex functions into man-made hydrogel objects.
Ross Jaggers and prof.dr.ir. Stefan Bon at BonLab have now developed technology that allows for temporal and spatial programming of hydrogel objects, which we made from the biopolymer sodium alginate. Key to its design was the combined use of enzyme and metal-chelation know-how.
This video shows a programmed hydrogel tree. The hydrogel is made from sodium alginate and cross-linked with Calcium ions. Two scenarios are shown. In a tree of generation 1 the leaves contain a pH sensitive dye and the enzyme urease. The enzyme is trapped into the hydrogel leaves. The tree is floating in water of acidic pH. The water contains urea as trigger/fuel. After a dormant time period the leaves change colour from yellow to blue. This happens as the enzyme decomposes urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide. The bell-shaped activity curve of the enzyme is key to program the time delay in colour change. In a tree of generation 2, the leaves contain emulsion droplets of oil which are coloured red. Again they contain the enzyme urease. In this case, however, the system also contains the compound EDTA, which is a great calcium chelator at higher pH values. After a certain dormant time period, the pH in the leaves rises sufficiently (as a result of the enzymatic reaction decomposing urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide) that EDTA does its job. This results in spatial disintegration of the hydrogel leaves.
This video shows a programmed hydrogel object containing the numbers 1, 2 and 3. The hydrogel is made from sodium alginate and cross-linked with Calcium ions. The numbers contain emulsion droplets of oil which are coloured blue, red and yellow respectively. Each hydrogel number is loaded with a different amount of the enzyme urease. The enzyme is trapped into the gel. Number 1 contains the highest amount, number 3 the lowest. The hydrogel object is floating in water of acidic pH. The water contains urea as trigger/fuel. The system also contains the compound EDTA, which is a great calcium chelator at higher pH values. After a certain programmed dormant time period (dependent on enzyme loading), the pH in each of the numbers rises sufficiently (as a result of the enzymatic reaction decomposing urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide) that EDTA does its job. This results in spatial and temporal disintegration of the numbers.
Details of the study can be found in our paper "temporal and spatial programming in soft composite hydrogel objects" which was published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry B (DOI: 10.1039/C7TB02011B).
The study forms part of a wider program to develop technology to design hydrogels that can be programmed and communicate. As part of this series we reported earlier in 2017 in Materials Horizons a study on the design of hydrogel fibres and beads with autonomous independent responsive behaviour and have the ability to communicate (DOI: 10.1039/C7MH00033B).