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Electronic Materials

Liquid crystal adopts new alignment

Aligning molecules’ polarity could lead to new applications

by Sam Lemonick
June 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 24

Diagram showing liquid crystals, one whose molecules' heads and tails are aligned, the other having heads and tails in random orientations.
Credit: Oleg D. Lavrentovich
The molecules in a typical liquid crystal (right) might point up or down, but in a new material (left) they all point the same way.

Liquid crystals are ubiquitous in displays from digital watches to high-definition TVs. Almost 100 years after the discovery of liquid crystals, researchers have proved that a liquid crystal exists in a form that represents a new phase of these materials (PNAS 2020, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2002290117). Liquid crystals contain parallel rod–shaped molecules. Though polar, the molecules’ heads and tails are oriented randomly, so the overall material doesn’t have uniform polarity. Other groups of scientists recently reported that they created liquid crystals with microscopic areas of polarity (Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2017, DOI: 10.1039/C7CP00456G and Phys. Rev. X 2018, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevX.8.041025). Noel A. Clark and colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder, now show that the materials in those earlier studies can have macroscopic areas of uniform polarity when the molecules are sandwiched between glass plates. Because the material has overall polarity, Clark and other experts say, it will produce optical effects faster and with less voltage than typical liquid crystals, potentially leading to better displays or new kinds of memory devices. It’s “almost impossible” to imagine that these materials won’t find wide application, says Richard Mandle of the University of Leeds, whose group made these materials first, in 2016.


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