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Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Group
Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Group

On our previous post we presented the Famelab – a science communication competition  organised  all over the world – and how the Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials group (PBM) got involved in the whole event.

So now its time to give the floor to Arn Mignon and see how he represented the group in this year´s edition. 

Arn Mignon, Eng. PhD student, FameLab 2015

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My personal contribution dealt with hydrogels being applied in a broad application field ranging  from nappies  to self-healing concrete.

“Have you ever wondered how nappies  work? What if I told you that the same principle can be used to create concrete that heals itself? The solution for all those problems: hydrogels. Hmm, not very impressive at first? However, one of the characteristics is that these hydrogels can take up to 500 times their own weight in water. And then those small grains suddenly look a lot more impressive. These chemical miracles can be composed  of many possible substances, kept together in a network, a sort of mesh. They can even exist out of natural materials such as derivatives of algae or seaweed which can make them biodegradable.

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Hydrogels are the reason that nappies  don’t leak. They are also used in wound dressings; they can either work as a dry material to absorb puss out of the wound or as a wet gel to keep the wound cool and help it heal (see video below).

Now comes the tricky part, because how on earth can hydrogels be useful for concrete constructions. Well that’s actually the research I’m working on. The hydrogels are put in concrete during the manufacturing process. When cracks occur, they take up water entering the crack, start to swell extremely and as such fill and block the crack against the entrance of harmful particles dissolved in fluids and gases. In addition, they  can use that absorbed water to help the remaining cement to partially or fully heal the crack, creating a self-healing concrete. However, when they already swell during the mixing process, they create pores inside the concrete structure, which is not good for the strength of course. We still need to find a solution for that …

But what if we can bring this to the next level?

Some hydrogels can be sensitive to light, temperature or the acidity. About that last property, imagine the statue of liberty falling  from its support or you’re  crossing a collapsing bridge. Acid rain can be responsible for all this misery. Acid responsive hydrogels are the solution, as they swell only when acid rain enters  the crack, not during the mixing process when the pH is much higher – which also solves the problem of the strength.

You may not have heard of hydrogels before, but now you know they are  important in everyday life – more so than you could ever imagine. – from  nappies  to wound healing to self-healing concrete. This is the reason  I fell in love with hydrogels.”

If you want to know more about this initiative, don’t hesitate to check out the website: http://famelabbenelux.org/

A contribution by Arn Mignon together with Diana Giol and Sandra Van Vlierberghe

Polymer Chemistry & Biomaterials Group, Ghent University, Belgium

http://www.pbm.ugent.be, Follow us on twitter @ https://twitter.com/PBMUGENT