The development of tough hydrogels is an essential but challenging topic in biomaterials research that has received much attention over the past years. By the combinatorial synthesis of polymer networks and hydrogels based on prepolymers with different properties, new materials with widely varying characteristics and unexpected properties may be identified. In this paper, we report on the properties of combinatorial poly(urethane-isocyanurate) (PUI) type polymer networks that were synthesized by the trimerization of mixtures of NCO-functionalized poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG), poly(propylene gylcol) (PPG), poly(ε-caprolactone) (PCL) and poly(trimethylene carbonate) (PTMC) prepolymers in solution. The resulting polymer networks showed widely varying material properties. Combinatorial PUI networks containing at least one hydrophilic PEG component showed high water uptakes of >100 wt%. The resulting hydrogels demonstrated elastic moduli of up to 10.1 MPa, ultimate tensile strengths of up to 9.8 MPa, elongation at break values of up to 624.0% and toughness values of up to 53.4 MJ m−3. These values are exceptionally high and show that combinatorial PUI hydrogels are among the toughest hydrogels reported in the literature. Also, the simple two-step synthesis and wide range of suitable starting materials make this synthesis method more versatile and widely applicable than the existing methods for synthesizing tough hydrogels. An important finding of this work is that the presence of a hydrophobic network component significantly enhances the toughness and tensile strength of the combinatorial PUI hydrogels in the hydrated state. This enhancement is the largest when the hydrophobic network component is crystallizable in nature. In fact, the PUI hydrogels containing a crystallizable hydrophobic network component are shown to be semi-crystalline in the water-swollen state. Due to their high toughness values in the water-swollen state together with their water uptake values, elastic moduli and ultimate tensile strengths, the developed hydrogels are expected to be promising materials for biomedical coating- and adhesive applications, as well as for tissue-engineering. Statement of significance: The development of tough hydrogels is a challenging topic that has received much attention over the past years. At present, double network type hydrogels are considered state-of-the-art in the field, demonstrating toughness values of several tens of MJ m−3. However, in terms of ease and versatility of the synthesis method, the possibilities are limited using a double network approach. In this work, we present combinatorial poly(urethane-isocyanurate) type polymer networks and hydrogels, synthesized by the trimerization of mixtures of NCO-functionalized prepolymers. The resulting hydrogels demonstrate exceptionally high toughness values of up to 53 MJ m−3, while the synthesis method is versatile and widely applicable. This new class of hydrogels is therefore considered highly promising in the future development of load-bearing biomaterials.
- Semi-crystalline hydrogels
- Tough hydrogels
- Combinatorial polymer networks