When exposed to UV light, single crystals of the vinyl azides 3-azido-1-phenylpropenone (1a), 3-azido-1-(4-methoxyphenyl)propenone (1b), and 3-azido-1-(4-chlorophenyl)propenone (1c) exhibit dramatic mechanical effects by cracking or bending with the release of N2. Mechanistic studies using laser flash photolysis, supported by quantum mechanical calculations, show that each of the vinyl azides degrades through a vinylnitrene intermediate. However, despite having very similar crystal packing motifs, the three compounds exhibit distinct photomechanical responses in bulk crystals. While the crystals of 1a delaminate and release gaseous N2 indiscriminately under paraffin oil, the crystals of 1b and 1c visibly expand, bend, and fracture, mainly along specific crystallographic faces, before releasing N2. The photochemical analysis suggests that the observed expansion is due to internal pressure exerted by the gaseous product in the crystal lattices of these materials. Lattice energy calculations, supported by nanoindentation experiments, show significant differences in the respective lattice energies. The calculations identify critical features in the crystal structures of 1b and 1c where elastic energy accumulates during gas release, which correspond to the direction of the observed cracks. This study highlights the hitherto untapped potential of photochemical gas release to elicit a photomechanical response and motility of photoreactive molecular crystals.
- Crystal structure