A team of researchers from Donghua University in China has made a significant breakthrough in the development of hydrogel-based microfibers, drawing inspiration from the extraordinary characteristics of spider silk.

Their groundbreaking study, recently published in Nature Communications, delves into a novel fabrication process inspired by the spinning techniques of spiders. The aim of this research was to address the limitations of synthetic hydrogel fibers, which often lack sufficient damage resistance and durability when compared to biological fibers like silk, muscle, and nerve fibers.

To overcome these challenges, the team turned to the nanoconfined structure of spider silk, renowned for its exceptional toughness — by closely examining the nanoconfined structure of spider silk, the researchers sought to mimic its mechanical performance using an ionic complex composed of a hygroscopic, positively charged polyelectrolyte (PDMAEA-Q) and polymethacrylic acid (PMAA).

Shi, Y., Wu, B., Sun, S. et al. Aqueous spinning of robust, self-healable, and crack-resistant hydrogel microfibers enabled by hydrogen bond nanoconfinement. Nat Commun 14, 1370 (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-37036-4

The hydrogel microfibers were fabricated through a process called pultrusion spinning, which mirrors the natural spinning environment of spiders. The resulting hydrogel microfibers demonstrated remarkable mechanical properties. They exhibited a high Young’s modulus of 428 MPa and an elongation of 219%.

Furthermore, these microfibers displayed excellent vibration damping, crack resistance, and the ability to respond to moisture by contracting and retaining specific shapes. Most notably, when damaged, the microfibers exhibited rapid self-healing capabilities.

The hierarchical nanoconfined structure, which spontaneously forms during water evaporation, played a crucial role in imparting the hydrogel microfibers with their outstanding mechanical properties. By successfully combining strong covalent bonding and dynamic networks, the researchers overcame the inherent trade-off between high mechanical strength and rapid self-repair capabilities.

While the toughness of the hydrogel fibers falls short of that exhibited by real spider silk, the researchers anticipate future advancements that will further enhance their mechanical performance. One potential avenue for improvement is incorporating stronger nanocrystals into the nanoconfined structure to boost toughness.

Exciting possibilities

This remarkable development opens up exciting possibilities for the creation of advanced fibrous materials; the hydrogel microfibers could find applications in diverse fields, including soft humanoid robots, prosthetics, comfortable smart clothing, and wearable devices. Real-world evaluations are already being considered, such as implementing these microfibers as actuating fibers in prosthetic limbs and wearable technology.

This research not only showcases the potential of hydrogel-based materials but also underscores the importance of drawing inspiration from nature’s ingenious designs to create innovative and high-performance solutions. The team’s achievement signifies a significant step forward in the quest for materials with exceptional strength and resilience.

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