Formation of Helices with Controllable Chirality in Gel-Fiber Composites


While microscale helices with specified chirality are pervasive in biological systems, driving purely synthetic materials to self-organize into such useful structures remains a significant challenge. Through theory and simulations, we model the behavior of initially flat ribbons of gel-fiber composites and show that these materials self-organize into three-dimensional helices with the application of heat. We specifically focus on thermo-responsive gels, which shrink when heated to a point near the lower critical solubility temperature (LCST). Within the composite, regions of the LCST gel that lie far from the fibers can readily shrink in response to the increased temperature; however, near the fibers the network is inhibited from undergoing the heat-induced collapse. This competition between the constrained and the unconstrained regions of the heated sample plays a vital role in the structural evolution of the material. We find that this dynamic process can be controlled through the careful placement of the fibers on the outer surface of the gel. We specifically identify fiber arrangements that lead to the formation of helical structures with controlled chirality. Moreover, we isolate scenarios where constraining the movement of one or both the free ends of the sample promotes and stabilizes the formation of helical structures with specified handedness. Such structurally tailored composites are useful for creating mechanically robust actuators, and “appendages” for soft robots that can controllably curl and uncurl with variations in temperature.

Polymer, 212, 123191
Tao Zhang
Tao Zhang
Special Research Fellow