Internal constraints and arrested relaxation in main-chain nematic elastomers
Abstract: Nematic liquid crystal elastomers (N-LCE) exhibit intriguing mechanical properties, such as reversible actuation and soft elasticity, which manifests as a wide plateau of low nearly-constant stress upon stretching. N-LCE also have a characteristically slow stress relaxation, which sometimes prevents their shape recovery. To understand how the inherent nematic order retards and arrests the equilibration, here we examine hysteretic stress-strain characteristics in a series of specifically designed main-chain N-LCE, investigating both macroscopic mechanical properties and the microscopic nematic director distribution under applied strains. The hysteretic features are attributed to the dynamics of thermodynamically unfavoured hairpins, the sharp folds on anisotropic polymer strands, the creation and transition of which are restricted by the nematic order. These findings provide a new avenue for tuning the hysteretic nature of N-LCE at both macro- and microscopic levels via different designs of polymer networks, toward materials with highly nonlinear mechanical properties and shape-memory applications.