Polyelectrolyte multilayers (PEMs), assembled from weak polyelectrolytes, have often been proposed for use as smart or responsive materials. However, such response to chemical stimuli has been limited to aqueous environments with variations in ionic strength or pH. In this work, a large in magnitude and reversible transition in both the swelling/shrinking and the viscoelastic behavior of branched polyethylenimine/poly(acrylic acid) multilayers was realized in response to exposure with various polar organic solvents (e.g., ethanol, dimethyl sulfoxide, and tetrahydrofuran). The swelling of the PEM decreases with an addition of organic content in the organic solvent/water mixture, and the film contracts without dissolution in pure organic solvent. This large response is due to both the change in dielectric constant of the medium surrounding the film as well as an increase in hydrophobic interactions within the film. The deswelling and shrinking behavior in organic solvent significantly enhances its elasticity, resulting in a stepwise transition from an initially liquid-like film swollen in pure water to a rigid solid in pure organic solvents. This unique and recoverable transition in the swelling/shrinking behaviors and the rheological performances of weak polyelectrolyte multilayer film in organic solvents is much larger than changes due to ionic strength or pH, and it enables large scale actuation of a freestanding PEM. The current study opens a critical pathway toward the development of smart artificial materials.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Materials Science(all)