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Published November 2020 | Submitted
Journal Article Open

Photomechanical coupling in photoactive nematic elastomers


Photoactive nematic elastomers are soft rubbery solids that undergo deformation when illuminated. They are made by incorporating photoactive molecules like azobenzene into nematic liquid crystal elastomers. Since its initial demonstration in 2001, it has received increasing interest with many recent studies of periodic and buckling behavior. However, theoretical models developed have focused on describing specific deformation modes (e.g., beam bending and uniaxial contraction) in the absence of mechanical loads, with only limited attention to the interplay between mechanical stress and light-induced deformation. This paper explores photomechanical coupling in a photoactive nematic elastomer under both light illumination and mechanical stress. We begin with a continuum framework built on the free energy developed by Corbett and Warner (Phys. Rev. Lett. 2006). Mechanical stress leads to nematic alignment parallel to a uniaxial tensile stress. In the absence of mechanical stress, in the photo-stationary state where the system reaches equilibrium, the nematic director tends to align perpendicular to the polarization of a linearly polarized light. However, sufficient illumination can destroy nematic order through a first-order nematic-isotropic phase transition which is accompanied by a snap through deformation. Combined illumination and mechanical stress can lead to an exchange of stability accompanied by stripe domains. Finally, the stress-intensity phase diagram shows a critical point that may be of interest for energy conversion.

Additional Information

© 2020 Elsevier Ltd. Received 10 February 2020, Revised 22 June 2020, Accepted 15 August 2020, Available online 18 August 2020. This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research through the MURI on Photomechanical Material Systems (ONR N00014-18-1-2624). We acknowledge the fruitful discussion with M. Ravi Shankar on the photomechanical phase diagram. Declaration of Competing Interest: None.

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