Loose Pre-Cross-Linking Mediating Cellulose Self-Assembly for 3D Printing Strong and Tough Biomimetic Scaffolds
The lack of an effective printable ink preparation method and the usual mechanically weak performance obstruct the functional 3D printing hydrogel exploitation and application. Herein, we propose a gentle pre-cross-linking strategy to enable a loosely cross-linked cellulose network for simultaneously achieving favorable printability and a strong hydrogel network via mediating the cellulose self-assembly. A small amount of epichlorohydrin is applied to (i) slightly pre-cross-link the cellulose chains for forming the percolating network to regulate the rheological properties and (ii) form the loosely cross-linked points to mediate the cellulose chains’ self-assembly for achieving superior mechanical properties. The fabrication of the complex 3D structures verifies the design flexibility. The printed cellulose hydrogels exhibit a biomimetic nanofibrous topology, remarkable tensile and compressive strength (5.22 and 11.80 MPa), as well as toughness (1.81 and 2.16 MJ/m3). As a demonstration, a bilayer scaffold (mimicking the osteochondral structure) consisting of a top pristine cellulose and a bottom cellulose/bioactive glass hydrogel is printed and exhibits superior osteochondral defect repair performance, showing a potential in tissue engineering. We anticipate that our loose pre-cross-linking 3D printing ink preparation concept can inspire the development of other polymeric inks and strong 3D printing functional hydrogels, eventually spreading the applications in diverse fields.