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  1. Abstract

    Polyacrylamide hydrogels are widely used in biomedical applications due to their tunable mechanical properties and charge neutrality. Our recent tribological investigations of polyacrylamide gels have revealed tunable and pH-dependent friction behavior. To determine the origins of this pH-responsiveness, we prepared polyacrylamide hydrogels with two different initiating chemistries: a reduction–oxidation (redox)-initiated system using ammonium persulfate (APS) andN,N,NN-tetramethylethylenediamine (TEMED) and a UV-initiated system with 2-hydroxy-4′-(2-hydroxyethoxy)-2-methylpropiophenone (Irgacure 2959). Hydrogel swelling, mechanical properties, and tribological behavior were investigated in response to solution pH (ranging from ≈ 0.34 to 13.5). For polyacrylamide hydrogels in sliding contact with glass hemispherical probes, friction coefficients decreased fromµ = 0.07 ± 0.02 toµ = 0.002 ± 0.002 (redox-initiated) and fromµ = 0.05 ± 0.03 toµ = 0.003 ± 0.003 (UV-initiated) with increasing solution pH. With hemispherical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) probes, friction coefficients of redox-initiated hydrogels similarly decreased fromµ = 0.06 ± 0.01 toµ = 0.002 ± 0.001 with increasing pH. Raman spectroscopy measurements demonstrated hydrolysis and the conversion of amide groups to carboxylic acid in basic conditions. We therefore propose that the mechanism for pH-responsive friction in polyacrylamide hydrogels may be credited to hydrolysis-driven swelling through the conversion of side chain amide groups into carboxylic groups and/or crosslinker degradation. Our results could assist in the rational design of hydrogel-based tribological pairs for biomedical applications from acidic to alkaline conditions.

    Graphical abstract

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  2. Poly(acrylamide- co -acrylic acid) (P(AAm- co -AA)) hydrogels are highly tunable and pH-responsive materials frequently used in biomedical applications. The swelling behavior and mechanical properties of these gels have been extensively characterized and are thought to be controlled by the protonation state of the acrylic acid (AA) through the regulation of solution pH. However, their tribological properties have been underexplored. Here, we hypothesized that electrostatics and the protonation state of AA would drive the tribological properties of these polyelectrolyte gels. P(AAm- co -AA) hydrogels were prepared with constant acrylamide (AAm) concentration (33 wt%) and varying AA concentration to control the amount of ionizable groups in the gel. The monomer:crosslinker molar ratio (200:1) was kept constant. Hydrogel swelling, stiffness, and friction behavior were studied by systematically varying the acrylic acid (AA) concentration from 0–12 wt% and controlling solution pH (0.35, 7, 13.8) and ionic strength ( I = 0 or 0.25 M). The stiffness and friction coefficient of bulk hydrogels were evaluated using a microtribometer and borosilicate glass probes as countersurfaces. The swelling behavior and elastic modulus of these polyelectrolyte hydrogels were highly sensitive to solution pH and poorly predicted the friction coefficient ( µ ), which decreased with increasing AA concentration. P(AAm- co -AA) hydrogels with the greatest AA concentrations (12 wt%) exhibited superlubricity ( µ = 0.005 ± 0.001) when swollen in unbuffered, deionized water (pH = 7, I = 0 M) and 0.5 M NaOH (pH = 13.8, I = 0.25 M) ( µ = 0.005 ± 0.002). Friction coefficients generally decreased with increasing AA and increasing solution pH. We postulate that tunable lubricity in P(AAm- co -AA) gels arises from changes in the protonation state of acrylic acid and electrostatic interactions between the probe and hydrogel surface. 
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  3. An important but often overlooked feature of Diels–Alder (DA) cycloadditions is the ability for DA adducts to undergo mechanically induced cycloreversion when placed under force. Herein, we demonstrate that the commonly employed DA cycloaddition between furan and maleimide to crosslink hydrogels results in slow gelation kinetics and “mechanolabile” crosslinks that relate to reduced material strength. Through rational computational design, “mechanoresistant” DA adducts were identified by constrained geometries simulate external force models and employed to enhance failure strength of crosslinked hydrogels. Additionally, utilization of a cyclopentadiene derivative, spiro[2.4]hepta-4,6-diene, provided mechanoresistant DA adducts and rapid gelation in minutes at room temperature. This study illustrates that strategic molecular-level design of DA crosslinks can provide biocompatible materials with improved processing, mechanical durability, lifetime, and utility. 
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