An engineer's introduction to mechanophores
Mechanophores (MPs) are a class of stimuli-responsive materials that are of increasing interest to engineers due to their potential applications as stress sensors. These mechanically responsive molecules change color or become fluorescent upon application of a mechanical stimulus as they undergo a chemical reaction when a load is applied. By incorporating MPs such as spirolactam, spiropyran, or dianthracene into a material system, the real-time stress distribution of the matrix can be directly observed through a visual response, ideal for damage and failure sensing applications. A wide array of applications that require continuous structural health monitoring could benefit from MPs including flexible electronics, protective coatings, and polymer matrix composites. However, there are significant technical challenges preventing MP implementation in industry. Effective strategies to quantitatively calibrate the photo response of the MP with applied stress magnitudes must be developed. Additionally, environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet light exposure can potentially impact the performance of MPs. By addressing these limitations, engineers can work to move MPs from the synthetic chemistry bench to the field. This review aims to highlight recent progress in MP research, discuss barriers to implementation, and provide an outlook on the future of MPs, specifically focused on polymeric material systems. Although the focus is on engineering MPs for bulk materials, a brief overview of mechanochemistry will be discussed followed by methods for activation and quantification of MP photo response (concentrating specifically on fluorescently active species). Finally, current challenges and future directions in MP research will be addressed.