Structures and mechanisms in soft robotics are primarily based on chemically versatile species such as hydrogels, polymers, or elastomers, thus offering great potential for the design of adaptive core properties. In particular, tunable rigidity is highly desirable to enable control of soft grippers or for advanced robot locomotion. However, most of the strategies explored so far rely on mechanisms, such as phase transitions or shape memory effects, that require heavy external hardware or have a limited range of tunable rigidity.
In this work, we propose a novel strategy inspired by the sea cucumber dermis mechanism. High aspect ratio carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are reversibly interconnected by DNA oligonucleotides within a polyacrylamide (PAAm) hydrogel. The combination of the excellent mechanical properties of CNTs and the reversible hybridization of DNA strands into a stable double-helicoidal structure allowed the reversible tunability of mechanical properties over one order of magnitude (from ∼100 Pa to ∼1 kPa) within minutes by increasing the temperature beyond the melting temperature of DNA strands (∼50 °C). First, the functionalization strategy of CNTs with DNA strands is described and characterized. The aggregation of CNTs driven by the DNA hybridization is then demonstrated. The mechanical properties of hydrogels functionalized with CNTs are finally analyzed using rheology measurements.