Synthetic hydrogels are probably one of the coolest types of polymers we work with. They show up everywhere these days, from disposable diapers to medical devices, so it’s especially exciting to learn of a recent innovation in polymers – a smart hydrogel!
MIT engineers have announced the creation of a sticky, stretchy hydrogel that’s also electronics-friendly – something most hydrogels typically are not. The ability to incorporate micro-electronics like sensors into the new hydrogel is what qualifies it as smart, and the potential applications are truly game-changing for the life sciences industry.
Synthetic hydrogels are, essentially, a little bit of polymer and a whole lot of water (or other liquid). Their hydrophilic (water-loving) qualities make hydrogels perfect for applications in which you need to absorb, retain or slow-release a high volume of liquid. It’s why hydrogels are now used in everything from potting soil (to help retain moisture) to fast-dissolving tablets, and medical devices to explosives.
As amazing as hydrogels are, however, they’ve had some significant limitations in medical device applications, especially if you wanted to put them inside the human body. Most synthetic hydrogels aren’t very bendable, and they don’t stick well to other surfaces. The new hydrogel developed by MIT researchers, including Xuanhe Zhao, is mostly made up of water, and it’s stretchy, flexible and very, very sticky. In fact, it’s able to bond strongly to gold, titanium, aluminum, silicon, glass and ceramic – materials commonly used in electronics.
That flexibility and bondability mean you can use the hydrogel to encapsulate temperature sensors, LED lights, other electronics and drug-delivery reservoirs or channels. The innovative hydrogel could then be used to create smart wound dressings that release medicine in response to fluctuations in skin temperature or other environmental changes. Moreover, the hydrogel’s stiffness is comparable to that of natural human tissues, so researchers believe when used for internal medical devices, the hydrogel will make them more palatable to the human body over the long term.
But the hopes for this ground-breaking smart hydrogel don’t stop there. Zhao’s team is exploring its potential for neurological applications. Because the hydrogel can be designed to mimic the mechanical and physiological properties of brain tissue, it could help in the development of more biocompatible neural devices, Zhao says.
Polymer science continues to help improve people’s lives, and developments like this new smart hydrogel keep us excited and inspired!