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Joe Martel

G1 - Engineering Sciences

Foci - Fluid mechanics, Biofluids


Final Project: Cholesteric Liquid Crystal Shear Response

Image of liquid crystals in bulk.



To understand a little bit more about the dynamics of liquid crystals and their response to shear stress in different known configurations: liquid crystal coating and partially exposed polymer dispersed liquid crystals (PEPDLCs).

Liquid Crystals (LCs)

Most people know the three main phases of materials: solid, liquid and gaseous. However, things are a little more complicated upon a more detailed inspection. For some materials as they melt (go from solid or crystalline phase to a liquid phase) they undergo more than a single transition in properties. These intermediate phases are known as liquid crystals where the material exhibits certain crystal-like properties and liquid like properties simultaneously. A more specific way to define liquid crystals is how the molecules order themselves.

Crystalline structures are characterized by a rigid three dimensional structure where the molecules or atoms are relatively fixed with respect to one another. In contrast, an isotropic liquid has no such structure. Molecules and atoms in this phase move freely past each other and bounce into one another. So in between these two phases one would expect some kind of order and some kind of disorder. DeGennes and Prost (1993, p.1-2) define the three known liquid crystal phases in a convenient manner:

Nematic liquid crystals are anisotropic liquids in that their density changes differently in perpendicular directions.

An important subset of this phase is the chiral nematic phase whose adjacent layers are on a slight angle with each other. (a.k.a. cholesteric LCs)

Smectic liquid crystals have one dimensional order in three dimensions.

Columnar liquid crystals have two dimensional order in three dimensions.

This is a most basic definition. A more common definition of liquid crystals is that they have long range orientational but not positional order. More information is available on this wiki as well.Phase_transitions_in_liquid_crystals

Liquid crystals are used in a variety of technologies from thermometers to liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Different chemical are know to respond to many stimuli including light, electrical, magnetic, thermal and most relevant to this report, shear stress.

Shear Response

Schematic showing how the orientation of the different layers of chiral nematic liquid crystals changes. [1]

In the case of chiral nematic liquid crystals over their different layers they form sort of helical shapes as in the image below. When a shear is applied to these helices they deform and untwist slightly. This untwisting changes the geometry or pitch of the helix. This coupled with a property called birefringence (having two distinct indicies of refraction) can alter the wavelength and/or polarization of incident light which can be measured as a color or intensity change.

Polymer Dispersed Liquid Crystals (PDLCs)

Polymer dispersed liquid crystals are liquid crystal droplets (of varying shapes and sizes) distributed in a solid polymer matrix. The goal of this material is to contain the liquid crystals (LCs) in discrete domains. Since LCs are liquid-like they can and do flow which is a potentially detrimental for certain technologies. For example, liquid crystal displays (computer monitors or televisions); If the LCs move within the display the picture would not be very consistent or if the LCs drained out of the display you would not see any images at all.

While introducing a polymer matrix solves this flowing problem it also creates many challenges in understanding the dynamics of the LCs and their response to different stimuli including:

  1. Creating uniform droplets throughout matrix
  2. Curved surfaces of polymer matrix interacting with LCs
  3. Flow of LCs through polymer matrix depending on local structure and proximity of droplets
  4. Getting all droplets to have a uniform alignment
  5. Effect of matrix material properties

Most PDLCs are made with two generalized methods 1. Emulsion methods: LCs dispersed as droplets into polymer solution then applied to a surface and the solvent evaporates.

Examples: Polyvinyl Alcohol systems, latex based systems (paint-like), pigskin gelatin and gum arabic and water?!?!?!

2. Phase separation methods: LCs mixed with organic solvent with polymers in it then induced to separate from solvent.

Three types:

  1. Polymerization-induced phase separation (PIPS)
  2. Thermally-induced phase separation (TIPS)
  3. Solvent-induced phase separation (SIPS)

The different methods of phase separation and the dynamics of this process are very important for the morphology of the final PDLC films.

In some cases, including for shear stress measurement it is desirable to have liquid crystals exposed at the surface of the PDLC membrane. These are called partially exposed polymer dispersed liquid crystals or PEPDLCs.

Partially Exposed Polymer Dispersed Liquid Crystals (PEPDLCs)

These materials are a subset of PDLCs where the pores or droplets of liquid crystals are found to be exposed at the surface of the membrane or film which leads to more complicated interactions.

Matrix formation and matrix properties are much more important than those of the liquid crystal for determining size, shape, and anchoring characteristics.

There are more complications for understanding the pores since they are open on one side. I have not found mention of anyone studying the dynamics of these type of pores. In fact due to the high difficulty most people have only looked at the response of spherical droplets of LCs which only occur in solution for emulsion based methods and early in the phase separation process for phase separation methods.

Droplet Size and Shape

In general, Droplet size ranges from 0.1 micron to 10 microns but the majority form in the size range 1-3 microns in diameter.

Emulsion Methods

When using emulsion methods drying causes the droplets to flatten into oblate spheroids. Also when using this technique the droplets seem to stay in a 2d distribution within the polymer.

In PVA systems the polymer walls between LC droplets are usually very thin (0.1 - 0.3 microns) which have been known to break when put under stress causing flow of LCs between pores complicating the LC dynamics.

Phase Separation Methods

When using phase separation techniques shape changes are much less, there is a 3D randomize distribution of droplets, however, some LC is absorbed into the polymer matrix swelling the polymer and altering its properties. Rate of cooling or rate of evaporation effects droplets size...In general the longer the polymer cure time the smaller the droplets.

Depending on the mixture composition and the temperature of the film different morphologies are known to occur. Images of two different PDLC film morphologies are below (Left: LC Droplet, Right: Polymer Balls)


These morphologies have been well classified using the following phase diagram for a specific type of LC and polymer.


Interfacial Interactions

Background on Shear response?

Surface attachment



Size and shape differences of droplets of polymer dispersed liquid crystals that are knife-bladed onto a surface versus sprayed.

Shear response dependence on pore size and shape - Some sort of scaling?

Pore dynamics versus flat surface under shear stress, stresses at boundaries of pores

How do cholesteric liquid crystals attach to a glass surface?

Why is polystyrene used in PEPDLC? -Material interactions -interfacial/adhesion forces

Keep track of forces and length scales -bulk vs. boundaries