Isotropic–isotropic phase separation and spinodal decomposition in liquid crystal–solvent mixtures†
Phase separation in mixtures forming liquid crystal (LC) phases is an important yet under-appreciated phenomenon that can drastically influence the behaviour of a multi-component LC. Here we demonstrate, using polarising microscopy with active cooling as well as differential scanning calorimetry, that the phase diagram for mixtures of the LC-forming compound 4′-n-pentylbiphenyl-4-carbonitrile (5CB) with ethanol is surprisingly complex. Binary mixtures reveal a broad miscibility gap that leads to phase separation between two distinct isotropic phases via spinodal decomposition or nucleation and growth. On further cooling the nematic phase enters on the 5CB-rich side, adding to the complexity. Significantly, water contamination dramatically raises the temperature range of the miscibility gap, bringing up the critical temperature for spinodal decomposition from ∼ 2 °C for the anhydrous case to >50 °C if just 3 vol% water is added to the ethanol. We support the experiments with a theoretical treatment that qualitatively reproduces the phase diagrams as well as the transition dynamics, with and without water. Our study highlights the impact of phase separation in LC-forming mixtures, spanning from equilibrium coexistence of multiple liquid phases to non-equilibrium effects due to persistent spatial concentration gradients.