Elastic microphase separation produces robust bicontinuous materials
Bicontinuous microstructures are essential to the function of diverse natural and synthetic systems. Their synthesis has been based on two approaches: arrested phase separation or self-assembly of block copolymers. The former is attractive for its chemical simplicity and the latter, for its thermodynamic robustness. Here we introduce elastic microphase separation (EMPS) as an alternative approach to make bicontinuous microstructures. Conceptually, EMPS balances the molecular-scale forces that drive demixing with large-scale elasticity to encode a thermodynamic length scale. This process features a continuous phase transition, reversible without hysteresis. Practically, EMPS is triggered by simply supersaturating an elastomeric matrix with a liquid, resulting in uniform bicontinuous materials with a well-defined microscopic length scale tuned by the matrix stiffness. The versatility of EMPS is further demonstrated by fabricating bicontinuous materials with superior mechanical properties and controlled anisotropy and microstructural gradients. Overall, EMPS presents a robust alternative for the bulk fabrication of homogeneous bicontinuous materials. © 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.