In the last years, hydrogels from renewable biopolymers and low-cost row materials are a hot topic for biomedical applications. In this context, cellulose nanofibrils are considered suitable building blocks for the synthesis of many biocompatible products, with a variety of chemical-physical properties. Herein we report a multi-technique and multi-scale study, from the molecular to the nanometric length scale, of the sol-gel transition observed in aqueous solutions of TEMPO-oxidized nano-sized cellulose fibrils (TOCNFs), when in the presence of polyvalent cations (Mg2+ and Ca2+). We combine the data from Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS), which provide information about the inner structure of the nanofibril, with those from UV Resonant Raman (UVRR) spectroscopy, which is a sensitive probe of the intra- and inter-molecular interactions in the gel and the liquid state. The transition between the gel and the liquid phases is investigated as a function of the concentration of both TOCNFs and cations, the nature of the latter, and the pH at which the phenomenon is observed. SANS analysis reveals that ion concentration induces an anisotropic swelling in the nanofibrils which, at the same time, become more and more flexible. The nanofibrils flexibility is also dependent on TOCNF concentration and pH value. UVRR allows us to elucidate the structural organization and hydrogen-bonding properties of water in aqueous TOCNF dispersions and gels, showing how water molecules partially lose their typical bulk-like tetrahedral organization when ions are added, and the gel phase is formed.
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