Soft mechanical metamaterials with unusual swelling behavior and tunable stress-strain curves

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Science Advances  08 Jun 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 6, eaar8535
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar8535

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Soft adaptable materials that change their shapes, volumes, and properties in response to changes under ambient conditions have important applications in tissue engineering, soft robotics, biosensing, and flexible displays. Upon water absorption, most existing soft materials, such as hydrogels, show a positive volume change, corresponding to a positive swelling. By contrast, the negative swelling represents a relatively unusual phenomenon that does not exist in most natural materials. The development of material systems capable of large or anisotropic negative swelling remains a challenge. We combine analytic modeling, finite element analyses, and experiments to design a type of soft mechanical metamaterials that can achieve large effective negative swelling ratios and tunable stress-strain curves, with desired isotropic/anisotropic features. This material system exploits horseshoe-shaped composite microstructures of hydrogel and passive materials as the building blocks, which extend into a periodic network, following the lattice constructions. The building block structure leverages a sandwiched configuration to convert the hydraulic swelling deformations of hydrogel into bending deformations, thereby resulting in an effective shrinkage (up to around −47% linear strain) of the entire network. By introducing spatially heterogeneous designs, we demonstrated a range of unusual, anisotropic swelling responses, including those with expansion in one direction and, simultaneously, shrinkage along the perpendicular direction. The design approach, as validated by experiments, allows the determination of tailored microstructure geometries to yield desired length/area changes. These design concepts expand the capabilities of existing soft materials and hold promising potential for applications in a diverse range of areas.

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