ACS Nano, 2020, vol 14, 1, pp. 241-254
Synthetic dry elastomers are randomly cross-linked polymeric networks with isotropic and unordered higher-level structural features. However, their growing use as soft-tissue biomaterials has demanded the need for an ordered and anisotropic nano-micro (or) mesoarchitecture, which is crucial for imparting specific properties such as hierarchical toughening, anisotropic mechanics, sustained drug delivery, and directed tissue growth. High processing cost, poor control in 3D, and compromised mechanical properties have made it difficult to synthesize tough and dry macroscopic elastomers with well-organized nano-microstructures. Inspired from biological design principles, we report a tough ordered mesoporous elastomer formed via bottom-up lyotropic self-assembly of noncytotoxic, polymerizable amphiphilic triblock copolymers and hydrophobic polymers. The elastomer is cross-linked using covalent cross-links and physical hydrophobic entanglements that are organized in a periodic manner at the nanoscale. This transforms into a well-ordered hexagonal arrangement of nanofibrils that are highly oriented at the micron scale, further organized as 3D macroscale objects. The ordered nano-microstructure and molecular multinetwork endows the elastomer with hierarchical toughening while possessing excellent stiffness and elongation comparable to engineering elastomers like silicone and vulcanized rubber. Processing of the elastomer is performed at ambient conditions using 3D printing and photo-cross-linking, which is fast and energy efficient and enables production of complex 3D objects with tailorable sub-millimeter features such as macroporosity. Furthermore, the periodic and amphiphilic nanostructure permits functionalization of the elastomer with secondary components such as inorganic nanoparticles or drug molecules, enabling complementary mechanical properties such as high stiffness and functional capabilities such as in localized drug delivery applications.