Heterogeneities in polymer gels: Effects on swelling and mechanical properties
Abstract: Polymeric hydrogels is a class of scientifically interesting materials that are being extensively studied. They are found in numerous applications within; drug delivery, hygiene products, food industry, analytical chemistry, etc. In addition, polymeric hydrogels have promising future applications as; cell scaffolds, implants, sensors, etc. One of the critical parameters for the performance of hydrogels in different applications is their structure. One such structural feature is the heterogeneity of the material, where the term heterogeneity applies to many different types of structural variations. The aim of this thesis was to investigate how different kinds of heterogeneities can be introduced into hydrogels, and how the presence of the different heterogeneities can be related to swelling and mechanical properties of such materials. The materials investigated were; polyacrylic acid neutralized with calcium hydroxide, polysodium acrylate superabsorbents with microfibrillated cellulose utilized as a filler and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose with heterogeneous distribution of the substituents. It was found that the presence of calcium ions during the synthesis of crosslinked polyacrylic acid introduces heterogeneities, both in network structure and in the form of phase separation, with dramatic impact on gel properties. Microfibrillated cellulose was found to even in small amounts cause significant changes to the swelling and shear modulus of crosslinked polysodium acrylate superabsorbents. The effect of the microfibrillated cellulose was similar as if an equivalent mass of covalent crosslinker had been used, but with improved resistance to fracture. For hydroxypropyl methylcellulose it was found that a heterogeneous distribution of the substituents causes increased interactions within the material, as determined from the glass transition temperature. Those increased interactions are coherent with earlier reports on solution behaviour for heterogeneously substituted hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. Hopefully the results presented in this thesis can contribute to the field of gel science, and in particular to the design of new multi-component soft materials.
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