Phase behavior of main-chain liquid crystalline polymer networks synthesized by alkyne–azide cycloaddition chemistry
Liquid crystalline polymer networks (LCNs) couple polymer chain organization to molecular ordering, the switching of which has been shown to impart stimuli-responsive properties, including actuation and one-way shape memory, to the networks. While LCNs have long been proposed as artificial muscles, recent reports have also suggested potential as dynamic biomaterial substrates. In contrast to many existing LCNs synthesized using hydrophobic spacers, this work investigates networks synthesized using more hydrophilic spacers to promote interaction with water. A challenge with such materials is liquid crystalline phases could be disrupted in hydrated networks. This work thus investigates the impact of polyether spacers and mesogen composition on the phase behavior of LCNs. Main-chain LCNs were synthesized using alkyne–azide cycloaddition (“click” chemistry), where two different mesogens (5yH and 5yMe) and a non-LC monomer (5yTe) were coupled with one of two different polyether spacers, poly(ethylene glycol) and poly(propylene glycol), and a crosslinker. The chemistry led to high gel fraction materials, the workup of which resulted in networks that displayed no difference in cellular toxicity due to leachable components compared to tissue culture plastic control. Calorimetric analysis, dynamic mechanical analysis, and X-ray scattering revealed the LC microstructure and temperature-responsive properties of the networks. The use of low molecular weight polyether spacers was found to prevent their crystallization within the LC network, and adjusting mesogen composition to enhance its LC phase stability allowed the use of spacers with larger molecular weights and pendant groups. Hydrated networks were found to rearrange their structure compared to dry networks, while maintaining their LC phases. Like other crosslinked LC materials, the networks display shape changes (actuation) that are tied to changes in LC ordering. The result is a new synthetic approach for polydomain networks that form stable LC phases that are tailorable using polyether spacers and may enable future application as hydrated, stimuli-responsive materials.