Description of field of research:

Polymer hydrogels are ecofriendly materials with a high-water content (generally >80%), in which hydrophilic polymer networks are highly solvated by water to produce a 3D tissue-like structure with outstanding flexibility. These soft materials have thus been widely used for flexible electronic devices, soft robotics, artificial skin and muscles, etc. However, their applications in artificial skin are greatly hampered in practice due to dissimilar surface structures of hydrogels with human skin. For instance, the loose networks with high volume of water in the hydrogel will cause inevitable water evaporation under ambient conditions which significantly reduces their flexibility and functionality.

In this project, we will develop a simple yet robust synthetic strategy to chemically coat a thin layer of porous polymer on hydrogel surface that is similar as the human skin. The pores in the polymer film are exactly functioning as those in the human skin to breathe and modulate water evaporation of hydrogel by controlling their sizes. These polymer coatings will address the great challenge of uses of polymer hydrogels in multi-environment by mimicking human skin and will widen the applications of hydrogels in our real world.

Research Area

Soft matter | Advanced Materials

The student will work in School of Chemical Engineering and under the guidance of Dr. Jason Xu, Dr. Kang Liang and Ms. Mengnan Zhang. CAMD is well-known research centre with many high-profile academics for advanced polymer synthesis, characterization and applications, equipped with specialized state-of-the-art instruments for all chemical synthesis and characterization research work. This is an ideal platform for the student to learn and work with different instruments in a multi-disciplinary research environment.

Expected outcomes will include the development of artificial skin materials using polymer coated hydrogels that possess very similar structure as real human skin. The project will allow students to work in a research team to develop the personal skills of problem solving, project design and academic communication. Additionally, professional skills in chemical synthesis, polymer characterization will be trained for the students to prepare for future career in industry and/or higher degree research. The research is anticipated to lead to a publication in a peer-reviewed journal with the student as co-author.

(1) Epidermis-Inspired Porous Polymer Films Grown in situ from Hydrogel Surfaces. ChemRxiv 2023, DOI:10.26434/chemrxiv-2023-4xt14.

(2) Design and applications of man-made biomimetic fibrillar hydrogels. Nat. Rev. Mater. 2019, 4, 99-115

(3) Skin-Inspired Double-Hydrophobic-Coating Encapsulated Hydrogels with Enhanced Water Retention Capacity. Adv. Funct. Materi. 2021, 31, 2102433

(4) A Simple Way to Synthesize a Protective “Skin” around Any Hydrogel. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, 13, 31, 37645–37654

(5) Skin-inspired hydrogel–elastomer hybrids with robust interfaces and functional microstructures. Nature Communications 2016, 7, 12028.