Materials Science/Thermochromics

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Thermochromism is the ability of substance to change colour due to a change in temperature. A mood ring is an excellent example of this, but it has many other uses. Thermochromism is one of several types of chromism.

The two basic approaches are based on liquid crystals and leuco dyes. Liquid crystals are used in precision applications, as their responses can be engineered to accurate temperatures, but their color range is limited by their principle of operation. Leuco dyes allow wider range of colors to be used, but their response temperatures are more difficult to set with accuracy.

Some liquid crystals are capable of displaying different colors at different temperatures. This change is dependent on selective reflection of certain wavelengths by the crystallic structure of the material, as it changes between the low-temperature crystallic phase, through anisotropic chiral or twisted nematic phase, to the high-temperature isotropic liquid phase. Only the nematic mesophase has thermochromic properties; this restricts the effective temperature range of the material.

The twisted nematic phase has the molecules oriented in layers with regularly changing orientation, which gives them periodic spacing. The light passing the crystal undergoes Bragg diffraction on these layers, and the wavelength with the greatest constructive interference is reflected back, which is perceived as a spectral color. As the crystal undergoes changes in temperature, thermal expansion occurs, resulting in change of spacing between the layers, and therefore in the reflected wavelength. The color of the thermochromic liquid crystal can therefore continuously range from black through the spectral colors to black again, depending on the temperature.

Some such materials are cholesteryl nonanoate or cyanobiphenyls.

Liquid crystals used in dyes and inks often come microencapsulated, in the form of suspension.

Liquid crystals are used in applications where the color change has to be accurately defined. They find applications in thermometers for room, refrigerator, aquarium, and medical use, and in indicators of level of propane in tanks.

Liquid crystals are difficult to work with and require specialized printing equipment. The material itself is also typically more expensive than alternative technologies. High temperatures, ultraviolet radiation, some chemicals and/or solvents have a negative impact on their lifespan.

Thermochromic paint is a relatively recent development in the area of color-changing pigments. It involves the use of liquid crystal or leuco dye technology. After absorbing a certain amount of light or heat, the crystallic or molecular structure of the pigment reversibly changes in such a way that it absorbs and emits light at a different wavelength than at lower temperatures. Thermochromic paints are seen quite often as a coating on coffee mugs, whereby once hot coffee is poured into the mugs, the thermochromic paint absorbs the heat and becomes colored or transparent, therefore changing the appearance of the mug.