The conversion of nanocellulose into solvent-free nanoscale liquid crystals by attaching long side-arms for multi-responsive optical materials†
Nanocellulose, with its unique optical and chemical properties, has received increasing attention as feedstock to fabricate sustainable materials. However, achieving a nanocellulose-based solvent-free liquid crystal with good responsiveness still remains a challenge. Herein, for the first time, solvent-free supramolecular liquid crystals were fabricated by attaching long side-arms on the fiber-like nanocellulose derived from tunicate (TCNC) with an average width of 20 nm and 400–3000 nm in length. The side-arms were grafted via surface condensation with a charged organosilane, followed by further functionalization with a counter-ion polyoxyethylene ether. The nanoscale liquid crystals consisted of the stiff TCNC as the core and flexible side-arms as the soft shells, forming the core–shell structure with an average width of 34–36 nm. The resulting solvent-free liquid crystal exhibited transparent and viscous liquid-like fluidity, as well as a bright birefringence between the crossed polarizers at room temperature. In our findings, the stiff core provided crystal-like ordering, whereas the soft shells induced the high mobility of the TCNCs as a result of the increased fractional free volume, as shown by positron annihilation lifetime spectra. The unique flowability enables the possibility of multi-responsiveness to temperature, deformation, and alternating electric fields. In addition, the thermo-responsiveness can be regulated by tailoring the canopy. This work provides a novel strategy for the conversion of solid nanocellulose into a solvent-free nanoscale liquid crystal, which is promising for use as a responsive optical material.