A “super jelly” created by scientists which can withstand enormous compressive forces, despite being soft and flexible, could one day replace cartilage in people with ailing knees.
The unique material, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, resembles a slab of gelatin but remains unchanged when driven over by a car.
It could one day revolutionise robotics and also be used as a cartilage mimic, as it has similar properties to the natural material that protects our joints.
When a person’s cartilage deteriorates following injury, disease or age, there is no substitute. Scientists are experimenting with synthetic options but have yet to find a solution.
The researchers wrote in their paper, published in Nature Materials, that the “super jelly” is capable of supporting 100 megapascals without fracture – equivalent to 14,500 pounds per square inch. That means a stamp-sized piece could support an elephant.
Researchers have been trying to make novel hydrogels for several years as they are flexible, durable and often self-healing.
But until now, they have been unable to develop a durable version that can resist crushing.
New material ‘withstands huge compressive forces’
The new material uses a tubular molecule called cucurbituril, which can then host two other linked molecules. These molecules can be tweaked and modified by the researchers to alter how the entire gel behaves and performs.
“At 80 per cent water content, you’d think it would burst apart like a water balloon, but it doesn’t. It stays intact and withstands huge compressive forces,” said Professor Oren Scherman, who spearheaded the project.
“The properties of the hydrogel are seemingly at odds with each other.
Dr Jane McCune, co-author from the Department of Chemistry and the University of Cambridge, added: “The way the hydrogel can withstand compression was surprising. It wasn’t like anything we’ve seen in hydrogels.”
Hydrogels are seen as integral to the future of soft robotics, a rapidly growing field where machines can handle and manipulate delicate objects without breaking them, for example, in farming and medicine. But it could also be used as a cartilage replacement as it is biocompatible and has similar properties to the material made by the body.
Dr Zehuan Huang, the study’s first author, said: “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that glass-like hydrogels have been made.
“We’re not just writing something new into the textbooks, which is really exciting, but we’re opening a new chapter in the area of high-performance soft materials.”