Fibrillar structure of methylcellulose hydrogels

Joseph R. Lott, John W. McAllister, Sara A. Arvidson, Frank S. Bates, Timothy P. Lodge

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It is well established that aqueous solutions of methylcellulose (MC) can form hydrogels on heating, with the rheological gel point closely correlated to the appearance of optical turbidity. However, the detailed gelation mechanism and the resulting gel structure remain poorly understood. Herein the fibrillar structure of aqueous MC gels was precisely quantified with a powerful combination of (real space) cryogenic transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM) and (reciprocal space) small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) techniques. The cryo-TEM images reveal that MC chains with a molecular weight of 300 000 g/mol associate into fibrils upon heating, with a remarkably uniform diameter of 15 ± 2 nm over a range of concentrations. Vitrified gels also exhibit heterogeneity in the fibril density on the length scale of hundreds of nanometers, consistent with the observed optical turbidity of MC hydrogels. The SANS curves of gels exhibit no characteristic peaks or plateaus over a broad range of wavevector, q, from 0.001-0.2 Å-1. The major feature is a change in slope from I ∼ q-1.7 in the intermediate q range (0.001 - 0.01 Å-1) to I ∼ q-4 above q ≈ 0.015 Å-1. The fibrillar nature of the gel structure was confirmed by fitting the SANS data consistently with a model based on the form factor for flexible cylinders with a polydisperse radius. This model was found to capture the scattering features quantitatively for MC gels varying in concentration from 0.09-1.3 wt %. In agreement with the microscopy results, the flexible cylinder model indicated fibril diameters of 14 ± 1 nm for samples at elevated temperatures. This combination of complementary experimental techniques provides a comprehensive nanoscale depiction of fibrillar morphology for MC gels, which correlates very well with macro-scale rheological behavior and optical turbidity previously observed for such systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2484-2488
Number of pages5
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 12 2013


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