Materials Science/Materials/Liquid Crystals

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Liquid crystals

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Liquid crystals are substances that exhibit a phase of matter that has properties between those of a conventional liquid, and those of a solid crystal. That means it can flow like an isotropic liquid but have the ordered structure like a solid. For instance, a liquid crystal (LC) may flow like a liquid, but have the molecules in the liquid arranged and/or oriented in a crystal-like way. There are many different types of LC phases, which can be distinguished based on their different optical properties (such as birefringence). When viewed under a microscope using a polarized light source, different liquid crystal phases will appear to have a distinct texture. Each "patch" in the texture corresponds to a domain where the LC molecules are oriented in a different direction. Within a domain, however, the molecules are well ordered. Liquid crystal materials may not always be in an LC phase (just as water is not always in the liquid phase: it may also be found in the solid or gas phase). Liquid crystals can be divided into thermotropic and lyotropic LCs. Thermotropic LCs exhibit a phase transition into the LC phase as temperature is changed, whereas lyotropic LCs exhibit phase transitions as a function of concentration of the mesogen in a solvent (typically water) as well as temperature.

Liquid crystals find wide use in liquid crystal displays, which rely on the optical properties of certain liquid crystalline molecules in the presence or absence of an electric field. In a typical device, a liquid crystal layer sits between two polarizers that are crossed (oriented at 90° to one another). The liquid crystal is chosen so that its relaxed phase is a twisted one. This twisted phase reorients light that has passed through the first polarizer, allowing it to be transmitted through the second polarizer and reflected back to the observer. The device thus appears clear. When an electric field is applied to the LC layer, all the mesogens align (and are no longer twisting). In this aligned state, the mesogens do not reorient light, so the light polarized at the first polarizer is absorbed at the second polarizer, and the entire device appears dark. In this way, the electric field can be used to make a pixel switch between clear or dark on command. Color LCD systems use the same technique, with color filters used to generate red, green, and blue pixels. Similar principles can be used to make other liquid crystal based optical devices.

Thermotropic chiral LCs whose pitch varies strongly with temperature can be used as crude thermometers, since the color of the material will change as the pitch is changed. Liquid crystal color transitions are used on many aquarium and pool thermometers. Other liquid crystal materials change color when stretched or stressed. Thus, liquid crystal sheets are often used in industry to look for hot spots, map heat flow, measure stress distribution patterns, and so on. Liquid crystal in fluid form is used to detect electrically generated hot spots for failure analysis in the semiconductor industry. Liquid crystal memory units with extensive capacity were used in Space Shuttle navigation equipment.

It is also worth noting that many common fluids are in fact liquid crystals. Soap, for instance, is a liquid crystal, and forms a variety of LC phases depending on its concentration in water.