Stretchable heterogeneous composites with extreme mechanical gradients

Nat Commun. 2012;3:1265. doi: 10.1038/ncomms2281.


Heterogeneous composite materials with variable local stiffness are widespread in nature, but are far less explored in engineering structural applications. The development of heterogeneous synthetic composites with locally tuned elastic properties would allow us to extend the lifetime of functional devices with mechanically incompatible interfaces, and to create new enabling materials for applications ranging from flexible electronics to regenerative medicine. Here we show that heterogeneous composites with local elastic moduli tunable over five orders of magnitude can be prepared through the site-specific reinforcement of an entangled elastomeric matrix at progressively larger length scales. Using such a hierarchical reinforcement approach, we designed and produced composites exhibiting regions with extreme soft-to-hard transitions, while still being reversibly stretchable up to 350%. The implementation of the proposed methodology in a mechanically challenging application is illustrated here with the development of locally stiff and globally stretchable substrates for flexible electronics.