Applicability of Vapor-Deposited Thermoresponsive Hydrogel Thin Films in Ultrafast Humidity Sensors/Actuators

Thermoresponsive polymers reversibly react to changes in temperature and water content of their environment (i.e., relative humidity, RH). In the present contribution, the thermoresponsiveness of poly­(N-vinylcaprolactam) thin films cross-linked by di­(ethylene glycol) divinyl ether deposited by initiated chemical vapor deposition are investigated to assess their applicability to sensor and actuator setups. A lower critical solution temperature (LCST) is observed at around 16 °C in aqueous environment, associated with a dramatic change in film thickness (e.g., 200% increase at low temperatures) and refractive index, while only thermal expansion of the polymeric system is found, when ramping the temperature in dry atmosphere. In humid environment, we observed a significant response occurring in low RH (already below 5% RH), with the moisture swelling the thin film (up to 4%), but mainly replacing air in the polymeric structure up to ∼40% RH. Non-temperature-dependent swelling is observed up to 80% RH. Above that, thermoresponsive behavior is also demonstrated to be present in humid environment for the first time, whereas toward 100% RH, film thickness and index appear to approach the values obtained in water at the respective temperatures. The response times are similar in a large range of RH and are faster than the ones of the reference humidity sensor used (i.e., seconds). A sensor/actuator hygromorphic device was built by coating a thin flower-shaped poly­(dimethylsiloxane) (PDMS) substrate with the thermoresponsive polymer. The large swelling due to water uptake upon exposure to humid environment at temperatures below the LCST caused the petals to bend, mimicking the capability of plants to respond to environmental stimuli via reversible mechanical motion.