Tag Archives: Olga Kuksenok

Squishy wonderfulness: new possibilities for hydrogels

i have two items for this posting about hydrogels and biomimicry (aka biomimetics). One concerns the use of light to transform hydrogels and the other concerns the potential for using hydrogels in ‘soft’ robotics. First, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found a way to make hydrogels change their shapes, from an Aug. 1, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some animals—like the octopus and cuttlefish—transform their shape based on environment, fending off attackers or threats in the wild. For decades, researchers have worked toward mimicking similar biological responses in non-living organisms, as it would have significant implications in the medical arena.

Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated such a biomimetic response using hydrogels—a material that constitutes most contact lenses and microfluidic or fluid-controlled technologies.

The Aug. 1, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, offers this description from the paper’s lead authorl,

“Imagine an apartment with a particular arrangement of rooms all in one location,” said lead author Anna Balazs, Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering. “Now, consider the possibility of being able to shine a particular configuration of lights on this structure and thereby completely changing not only the entire layout, but also the location of the apartment. This is what we’ve demonstrated with hydrogels.”

The news release goes on to provide more specific details about the work,

Together with Olga Kuksenok, research associate professor in the Swanson School, Balazs experimented with a newer type of hydrogel containing spirobenzopyran molecules. Such materials had been previously shown to form distinct 2-D patterns on initially flat surfaces when introduced to varying displays of light and are hydrophilic (“liking” water) in the dark but become hydrophobic (“disliking” water) under blue light illumination. Therefore, Balazs and Kuksenok anticipated that light could be a useful stimulus for tailoring the gel’s shape.

Using computer modeling, the Pitt team demonstrated that the gels “ran away” when exposed to the light, exhibiting direct, sustained motion. The team also factored in heat—combining the light and local variations in temperature to further control the samples’ motions. Controlling a material with light and temperature could be applicable, Balazs said, in terms of regulating the movement of a microscopic “conveyor belt” or “elevator” in a microfluidic device.

“This theoretical modeling points toward a new way of configuring the gels into any shape, while simultaneously driving the gels to move due to the presence of light,” said Kuksenok.

“Consider, for example, that you could take one sheet of hydrogel and, with the appropriate use of light, fashion it into a lens-shaped object, which could be used in optical applications”, added Balazs.

The team also demonstrated that the gels could undergo dynamic reconfiguration, meaning that, with a different combination of lights, the gel could be used for another purpose. Reconfigurable systems are particularly useful because they are reusable, leading to a significant reduction in cost.

“You don’t need to construct a new device for every new application,” said Balazs. “By swiping light over the system in different directions, you can further control the movements of a system, further regulating the flow of materials.”

Balazs said this type of dynamic reconfiguration in response to external cues is particularly advantageous in the realm of functional materials. Such processes, she said, would have a dramatic effect on manufacturing and sustainability, since the same sample could be used and reused for multiple applications.

The team will now study the effect of embedding microscopic fibers into the gel to further control the shape and response of the material to other stimuli.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Modeling the Photoinduced Reconfiguration and Directed Motion of Polymer Gels by Olga Kuksenok and Anna C. Balazs. Article first published online: 31 JUL 2013, Adv. Funct. Mater.. doi: 10.1002/adfm.201203876

© 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall. However, there is a video of Anna Balazs’s June 27, 2013 talk (Reconfigurable assemblies of active, auto-chemotactic gels) on these gels at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Meanwhile, researchers at North Carolina State University are pursuing a different line of query involving hydrogels. From an Aug. 2, 2013 North Carolina State University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new technique for creating devices out of a water-based hydrogel material that can be patterned, folded and used to manipulate objects. The technique holds promise for use in “soft robotics” and biomedical applications.

“This work brings us one step closer to developing new soft robotics technologies that mimic biological systems and can work in aqueous environments,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“In the nearer term, the technique may have applications for drug delivery or tissue scaffolding and directing cell growth in three dimensions, for example,” says Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State, the second senior author of the paper.

The technique they’ve developed uses hydrogels, which are water-based gels composed of water and a small fraction of polymer molecules. Hydrogels are elastic, translucent and – in theory – biocompatible. The researchers found a way to modify and pattern sections of hydrogel electrically by using a copper electrode to inject positively charged copper ions into the material. Those ions bond with negatively charged sites on the polymer network in the hydrogel, essentially linking the polymer molecules to each other and making the material stiffer and more resilient. The researchers can target specific areas with the electrodes to create a framework of stiffened material within the hydrogel. The resulting patterns of ions are stable for months in water.

“The bonds between the biopolymer molecules and the copper ions also pull the molecular strands closer together, causing the hydrogel to bend or flex,” Velev says. “And the more copper ions we inject into the hydrogel by flowing current through the electrodes, the further it bends.”

The researchers were able to take advantage of the increased stiffness and bending behavior in patterned sections to make the hydrogel manipulate objects. For example, the researchers created a V-shaped segment of hydrogel. When copper ions were injected into the bottom of the V, the hydrogel flexed – closing on an object as if the hydrogel were a pair of soft tweezers. By injecting ions into the back side of the hydrogel, the tweezers opened – releasing the object.

The researchers also created a chemically actuated “grabber” out of an X-shaped segment of hydrogel with a patterned framework on the back of the X. When the hydrogel was immersed in ethanol, the non-patterned hydrogel shrank. But because the patterned framework was stiffer than the surrounding hydrogel, the X closed like the petals of a flower, grasping an object. When the X-shaped structure was placed in water, the hydrogel expanded, allowing the “petals” to unfold and release the object. Video of the hydrogels in action is available here.

“We are currently planning to use this technique to develop motile, biologically compatible microdevices,” Velev says.

“It’s also worth noting that this technique works with ions other than copper, such as calcium, which are biologically relevant,” Dickey says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the article,

Reversible patterning and actuation of hydrogels by electrically assisted ionoprinting by Etienne Palleau, Daniel Morales, Michael D. Dickey & Orlin D. Velev. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2257 doi:10.1038/ncomms3257 Published 02 August 2013

This article is behind a paywall.

A gel that communicates

A Jan. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily highlights some work with oscillating gels being done at the University of Pittsburgh,

Self-moving gels can give synthetic materials the ability to “act alive” and mimic primitive biological communication, University of Pittsburgh researchers have found.

Anna Balazs, principal investigator of the study [published in the Jan. 8 print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] and Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, has long studied the properties of the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel, a material first fabricated in the late 1990s and shown to pulsate in the absence of any external stimuli.

The Jan. 8, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, provides some history about the project and more details about the latest results,

In a previous study, the Pitt team noticed that long pieces of gel attached to a surface by one end “bent” toward one another, almost as if they were trying to communicate by sending signals. This hint that “chatter” might be taking place led the team to detach the fixed ends of the gels and allow them to move freely.

Balazs and her team developed a 3-D gel model to test the effects of the chemical signaling and light on the material. They found that when the gel pieces were moved far apart, they would automatically come back together, exhibiting autochemotaxis—the ability to both emit and sense a chemical, and move in response to that signal.

“This study demonstrates the ability of a synthetic material to actually ‘talk to itself’ and follow out a given action or command, similar to such biological species as amoeba and termites,” said Balazs. “Imagine a LEGO® set that could by itself unsnap its parts and then put itself back together again in different shapes but also allow you to control those shapes through chemical reaction and light.”

Here’s a link to the online version of the article,

Reconfigurable assemblies of active, autochemotactic gels” by Pratyush Dayal, Olga Kuksenok, and Anna C. Balazs. Published online before print December 27, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1213432110 PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]  December 27, 2012 201213432

This article is behind a paywall.