Toluene-induced phase transitions in blue phase liquid crystals

We report phase transitions in blue phase-forming liquid crystals (LCs) that are triggered by exposure to toluene vapours. Specifically, we reveal that room-temperature cholesteric phase mixtures of MLC-2142 and S-811 form blue phases (BP I, II and III) with increasing vapour pressure of toluene. To probe the mechanism underlying this observation, we investigated the phase behaviour of mixtures of BP-forming LCs containing a range of non-volatile aromatic compounds (e.g. pyrene). We interpret our observations to indicate that the principal effect of small aromatic compounds is to decrease the energy penalty associated with the formation of disclination lines in BPs. We also conclude that the absorption of toluene into the BP-forming LCs lowers the energy required for the formation of disclination cores in the BP phase, thus allowing the elastically favoured double-twist cylinders to form at lower temperatures. We demonstrate that BP-forming LCs containing pyrene can be used to detect toluene at concentrations below 200 ppm at room temperature. Overall, these results guide the design of LC-based materials that respond to VOCs at concentrations relevant to occupational settings.