1, The University of Tokyo, Tokyo, , Japan
Machine technology frequently puts magnetic or electrostatic repulsive forces to practical use, as in maglev trains, vehicle suspensions or non-contact bearings. In contrast, materials design overwhelmingly focuses on attractive interactions, such as in the many advanced polymer-based composites, where inorganic fillers interact with a polymer matrix to improve mechanical properties. However, articular cartilage strikingly illustrates how electrostatic repulsion can be harnessed to achieve unparalleled functional efficiency: it permits virtually frictionless mechanical motion within joints, even under high compression. Here we describe a composite hydrogel with anisotropic mechanical properties dominated by electrostatic repulsion between negatively charged unilamellar titanate nanosheets embedded within it. Crucial to the behaviour of this hydrogel is the serendipitous discovery of cofacial nanosheet alignment in aqueous colloidal dispersions subjected to a strong magnetic field, which maximizes electrostatic repulsion and thereby induces a quasi-crystalline structural ordering over macroscopic length scales and with uniformly large face-to-face nanosheet separation. We fix this transiently induced structural order by transforming the dispersion into a hydrogel using light-triggered in situ vinyl polymerization. The resultant hydrogel, containing charged inorganic structures that align cofacially in a magnetic flux, deforms easily under shear forces applied parallel to the embedded nanosheets yet resists compressive forces applied orthogonally. This electrostatically anisotropic structure allowed us to realize unidirectional motions in response to heat or light or even autonomously. We envision that this strategy, inspired by articular cartilage, will open up new possibilities for developing soft materials with anomalous functions.
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 Y.-S. Kim, R. Yoshida et al., to be published.