During the last few years, liquid crystalline elastomers (LCEs) have been systematically produced by cross-linking liquid crystalline side-chain polymers. In these networks, a liquid crystalline molecule is fixed at each monomeric unit. LCEs exhibit a novel combination of properties. Due to liquid crystalline groups, they show anisotropic liquid crystalline properties similar to conventional liquid crystals (LCs); but due to the three-dimensional network-structure of the polymer chains, they show typical elastomer properties, such as rubber elasticity or shape stability. One exceptional property of this combination is demonstrated when a mechanical deformation to the LCE causes macroscopically uniform orientation of the long molecular axis of the LC units (the so-called “director”).
This response of the LC-phase structure to an applied mechanical field is similar to the effect of electric or magnetic fields on low molecular weight liquid crystals (LMLC), as illustrated in Figure 1. Figure la shows an undeformed LCE. Because of the non-uniform orientation of the director, the sample scatters light strongly so the elastomer is translucent like frosted glass. On the other hand, applying a mechanical field the director becomes uniformly aligned and the sample is transparent (Figure 1b). Such a macroscopically ordered rubber exhibits optical properties very similar to single crystals. These propertie s of LCEs offer new prospects for technical application, e.g., in nonlinear and integrated optics.