We present a systematic study of self-cross-linked microgels formed by precipitation polymerization of oligo ethylene glycol methacrylates. The cross-linking density of these microgels and, thus, the network flexibility can be easily tuned through the modulation of the reaction temperature during polymerization. Microgels prepared in absence of any difunctional monomer, i.e. cross-linker, show enhanced deformability and particle spreading on solid surfaces as compared to microgels cross-linked with varying amounts of poly(ethylene glycol diacrylate) (PEG-DA) in addition to self-crosslinking. Particles prepared at low reaction temperatures exhibit the highest degree of spreading due to the lightly cross-linked and flexible polymer network. Moreover, AFM force spectroscopy studies suggest that crosslinker- free microgels constitute of a more homogeneous polymer network than PEG-DA cross-linked particles and have elastic moduli at the particle apex that are ~5 times smaller than the moduli of 5 mol-% PEG-DA cross-linked microgels. Resistive pulse sensing experiments demonstrate that microgels prepared at 75 and 80ÊC without PEG-DA are able to deform significantly to pass through nanopores that are smaller than the microgel size. Additionally, we found that polymer network flexibility of microgels is a useful tool to control the formation of particle dewetting patterns. This offers a promising new avenue for build-up of 2D self-assembled particle structures with patterned chemical and mechanical properties.
Welsch N, Lyon LA (2017) Oligo(ethylene glycol)-sidechain microgels prepared in absence of cross-linking agent: Polymerization, characterization and variation of particle deformability. PLoS ONE 12(7): e0181369. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181369
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