For years, scientists have been interested in the potential of hydrogels in biomedical and engineering applications. Hydrogels often contain more than 90 percent water and a small percentage of synthetic polymer and are used in a variety of uses from medical electrodes, tissue engineering and dressings for hard to heal wounds.
“It is an interesting material since it is synthetic but can be bio-compatible since it is mostly water,” says Zhao Qin, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “In particular, hydrogels are attractive for biomedical applications.”
While the high percentage of water helps make hydrogels biocompatible, the small amount of synthetic polymer means it is not very strong.
While working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Qin connected with a research team that found that when they cooled a certain hydrogel to negative 20 degrees and heated it back to room temperature, the hydrogel became stronger. That team asked Qin to help with a key question: why does this material become so tough when it experiences the annealing process?
Qin joined the research collaboration to work on the modeling and theoretical calculation that could explain the way the hydrogel responded. He developed a full atomistic model to simulate the behavior of the materials. This model shows that the unwinding process of the crystal domains, which form during the annealing process of the hydrogel, dissipates much more energy than breaking the polymer chains, effectively making the material much tougher. This modeling tool could also be applied to other synthetic polymer structures to study how they would respond to different conditions.
“That’s something I want to study more in the future,” said Qin.
The research by Qin and his MIT colleagues Ji Liu, Shaoting Lin, Xinyue Liu, Yueying Yang, Jianfeng Zang and Xuanhe Zhao on “Fatigue-resistant adhesion of hydrogels” was published in the Nature Communications journal in February. Qin sees their work as a significant step forward for future hydrogel applications.
“Patients who might need a metal implant may face inflammation and corrosion issues,” says Qin. “Improved hydrogels could coat implants to make them more compatible and last for a longer time.”
Qin has joined the BioInspired Institute and is looking forward to collaborating with researchers from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, physics, biology and other programs on the Syracuse University campus.
“I think these kinds of studies need interdisciplinary collaborations like these unique opportunities I have at Syracuse,” says Qin.