Physically crosslinked low-temperature elastomers were prepared based on linear polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) elastic chains terminated on both ends with mesogenic building blocks (LC) of azobenzene type. They are generally (and also structurally) highly different from the well-studied LC polymer networks (light-sensitive actuators). The LC units also make up only a small volume fraction in our materials and they do not generate elastic energy upon irradiation, but they act as physical crosslinkers with thermotropic properties. Our elastomers lack permanent chemical crosslinks-their structure is fully linear. The aggregation of the relatively rare, small, and spatially separated terminal LC units nevertheless proved to be a considerably strong crosslinking mechanism. The most attractive product displays a rubber plateau extending over 100 °C, melts near 8 °C, and is soluble in organic solvents. The self-assembly (via LC aggregation) of the copolymer molecules leads to a distinctly lamellar structure indicated by X-ray diffraction (XRD). This structure persists also in melt (polarized light microscopy, XRD), where 1-2 thermotropic transitions occur. The interesting effects of the properties of this lamellar structure on viscoelastic and rheological properties in the rubbery and in the melt state are discussed in a follow-up paper ("Part II"). The copolymers might be of interest as passive smart materials, especially as temperature-controlled elastic/viscoelastic mechanical coupling. Our study focuses on the comparison of physical properties and structure-property relationships in three systems with elastic PDMS segments of different length (8.6, 16.3, and 64.4 repeat units).
Keywords: liquid crystals; reversible networks; self-assembly; self-healing; smart materials.