Hydrogels formed by cellulose nanofibers (CNFs) find use in a variety of applications. CNF hydrogels generally stiffen and ultimately flocculate with increasing salt concentrations. While charge repulsion explains the behavior of nanocellulose variants that have been stabilized by charged groups, it has been a puzzle why ions have such a pronounced effect also on CNFs with unmodified surfaces. We studied the effect of ionic solutes on native CNF hydrogels, and found that already at very low concentrations of around 1 mM, ions cause crowding of the hydrogels. The ionic solutes used were NaCl, Na2SO4, NaI, NaSCN, and sodium acetate. For the hydrogels, we used low densities of CNFs which lead to relatively weak gels that were highly sensitive to salts. Screening of the electrical double layer could not explain the results at such low ion concentrations. To understand cellulose-ion interactions, we used computational molecular dynamics simulations. The results provide an explanation by the effect of ions on the structure of the hydration layers of the cellulose. Understanding how and why ions affect the properties of native CNF hydrogels can help in for example manufacture of CNFs and when using CNFs as material components, substrates for enzymes, or as rheology modifiers. Ion-effects on the hydration layer of cellulose may also be important for more fundamental understanding of interfacial interactions of cellulose with water under different conditions. Graphical abstract: [Figure not available: see fulltext.].
- Hofmeister series
- Salt effect