February 3, 2023
Journal Article

Mucus-Inspired Tribology, a Sticky Yet Flowing Hydrogel


The mucus blanket can trap foreign particles before they enter the lungs, while at the same time, it flows up to remove these particles. This manifests the dual nature of mucus: sticky, on one hand, and fluid, on the other. Inspired by this function of mucus in the lungs, we designed a mucus simulant which emulates this dual nature. While many existing mucus simulants do not target bioadhesion particularly, poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA)-based simulants make an exception. Despite their bioadhesion tendency, unlike mucus, they do not gelate. In this study, we added a physical cross-linking agent to PVA in order to add the gelation aspect and to better represent mucous properties. We show that the resultant mucus simulant develops into two regions: a highly sticky region near the surface of a foreign object (we used hydrophobized silicon to mimic the foreign object) and a fluid region far away from that surface. We show that the sticky part can slide past the less sticky part, while the foreign object is stuck to it. However, this mechanism changes with time. At short gelation times, this tendency to separate into two parts is enhanced and the foreign object remains stuck, while the rest of the gel flows. With time, the force required to allow the sticky part to slide over the fluid part is further reduced. However, if the gelation is allowed to proceed for even longer times without disturbance, the force required to slide the two parts past each other increases and the separation between the two parts is inhibited. The hydrogel becomes a sticky goo, which requires a higher force to move or unclog if placed in a duct (much like what happens with mucus in the tracheal duct). We explain the physics of our findings in terms of a competition between the tendency of the polymer to form a gel network and the tendency of the polymer to adsorb onto the foreign object.

Published: February 3, 2023


Vinod A., Y. Bhimavarapu, M. Hananovitz, Y. Stern, S. Gulec, A.K. Jena, and S.B. Yadav, et al. 2022. Mucus-Inspired Tribology, a Sticky Yet Flowing Hydrogel. ACS Applied Polymer Materials 4, no. 11:8527-8535. PNNL-SA-181108. doi:10.1021/acsapm.2c01434

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