Understanding complex ordered fluids: towards new materials for photonics and sensors

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


Most people have heard of liquid crystals - they are the materials that are used in the flat-panel displays found in lap top computers, mobile phones and some of the most modern television sets. The technology is so successful that last year a liquid crystal display (LCD) was sold for every person on earth. There is always a push for faster, better display devices. These might use lower power, so are more environmentally friendly, or become more complex and faster, perhaps making them useful as specialist optoelectronic devices - things that improve telecommunications and computing. Liquid crystals aren't just high-tech materials though. They are fluids that have both function and order, and are a key component of many biological systems. For example liquid crystals help spider silk to have its amazing strength and flexibility, they cause the beautiful colours in some insects and even play a part in your brain which should be 70% liquid crystalline!The research in this proposal involves new liquid crystal materials at the forefront of technology. The materials we wish to study are being considered for use in a number of new applications where their optical properties or their sensitivity to surfaces might be useful. We can carry out a range of new experiments, including scattering x-rays of very precise energy (Resonant scattering) and measuring tiny changes in light scattered by the liquid crystal (Raman scattering), that will allow us to probe the exact kind of order that is important in our liquid crystal systems. We also want to build an experiment that will allow us to squeeze the liquid crystals to see how compressible they are. We believe that by carrying out this range of experiments and carefully combining all the information we gain, we can test theory and help theoreticians to understand how this important state of matter forms. We have new materials that will allow us to do some of the experiments we are proposing for the first time. Also, the unique combination of experiments that we are proposing will allow us to build a complete picture of whether the layers that we know form in this kind of liquid crystal are important in the process of forming the different types of liquid crystal structure. Understanding how this special kind of liquid crystal orders in the way it does has implications beyond technology. In studying physics or materials science, we try to understand why certain materials act in the way they do so that we can better use their properties, or so that chemists can improve them. Liquid crystals are an example of a fluid state of matter in which the molecules 'self-assemble' and the way in which they do depends very subtly on small changes in molecular structure or composition. How this happens is still not very well understood, despite this topic becoming increasingly important in areas like nanotechnology where materials with function are assembled into tiny structures that then act at a lager scale. Self-assembly is also a vital process in nature where, for example, the fluids we are composed of assemble in such a way that very high-level functions can take place. An important aspect of the research we plan is that we hope to understand how small changes in molecular structures in our systems lead to very large differences in their bulk physical properties. Such research has very broad relevance as it can potentially help us to understand how nature works. This final point isn't just speculative either / we recently used our understanding of liquid crystal optics to suggest how some fish see polarised light (without using Polaroid sunglasses!). There is no question that understanding self-assembly of fluids is important in many areas of science.


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Description This award was primarily aimed at understanding structures in liquid crystal systems that exhibit ferroelectric, antiferroelectric and ferroelectric phases. We developed a deep understanding of these systems through optical and x-ray studies. Our measurements allowed us to understand the structure of the so-called intermediate phases. We also discovered new phases that were induced as a result of applying electric fields. Our work led to a new approach that allows us to measure the interactions in these liquid crystal systems that lead to stabilisation of these fragile phases.
Exploitation Route Our work has been of relevance to understanding the phenomenon of ferroelectricity and antiferroelectricity in soft matter systems. The discovery of the field-effects could be of use in devices and electro-optic switches, as well as in other technologies in the future.
Sectors Chemicals,Education,Electronics,Energy

Description Other scientists have made use of the understanding of ferroelectric, antiferroelectric and ferroelectric phases to test theoretical predictions. The discovery of new phases that were induced as a result of applying electric fields led to a new approach that allows us to measure layer interactions in liquid crystal systems which is of interest to theoreticians, other physicists and some device designers.
Description Brookhaven National Laboratory 
Organisation Brookhaven National Laboratory
Country United States 
Sector Public 
Start Year 2006
Description Kingston Chemicals Ltd 
Organisation University of Hull
Department Kingston Chemicals
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
Start Year 2006