Sci Rep. 2022 Nov 21;12(1):20013. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-24701-9.
As new ultra-soft materials are being developed for medical devices and biomedical applications, the comprehensive characterization of their physical and mechanical properties is both critical and challenging. To characterize the very low surface modulus of the novel biomimetic lehfilcon A silicone hydrogel contact lens coated with a layer of a branched polymer brush structure, an improved atomic force microscopy (AFM) nanoindentation method has been applied. This technique allows for precise contact-point determination without the effects of viscous squeeze-out upon approaching the branched polymer. Additionally, it allows individual brush elements to be mechanically characterized in the absence of poroelastic effects. This was accomplished by selecting an AFM probe with a design (tip size, geometry, and spring constant) that was especially suited to measuring the properties of soft materials and biological samples. The enhanced sensitivity and accuracy of this method allows for the precise measurement of the very soft lehfilcon A material, which has an extremely low elastic modulus in the surface region (as low as 2 kPa) and extremely high elasticity (nearly 100%) in an aqueous environment. The surface-characterization results not only reveal the ultra-soft nature of the lehfilcon A lens surface but also demonstrate that the elastic modulus exhibits a 30 kPa/200 nm gradient with depth due to the disparity between the modulus of the branched polymer brushes and the SiHy substrate. This surface-characterization methodology may be applied to other ultra-soft materials and medical devices.