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Final Project: Liquid Crystals and Their Applications


Friedrich Richard Reinitzer (February 25, 1857- February 16, 1927)- "founding father" of liquid crystals

The study of liquid crystals (LCs) began in 1888 when an Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer experimented on a material known as cholesteryl benzoate. He observed that the aforementioned substance had two distinct melting points. In his experiments, Reinitzer increased the temperature of a solid sample and watched the crystal change into a hazy liquid at 145.5°C. As he increased the temperature further, the material changed again into a clear, transparent liquid at about 178.5°C. Because of this early work, Reinitzer is often credited with discovering a new phase of matter - the liquid crystal phase.

Liquid Crystals

Liquid crystal is a substance that exhibits properties that are between those of a conventional liquid and a solid. The main characteristic of the LC state is the tendency of molecules to point along a common axis, called the director. As we know, molecules in the liquid phase do not exhibit any intrinsic order. Also, in the solid state molecules are highly ordered and have little to no translational freedom. Therefore, we see that the characteristic orientational order of the liquid crystal state is somewhere between solid and liquid phases, as seen below.

Ordering of molecules in different phases
Ordering parameter temperature dependence.

In order to describe how ordered a certain liquid crystal is, we use a quantity called order parameter (S). Based on the second Lagandre polynomial, S is given by the following equation:

<math>S = \left \langle \frac{3 \cos^2 \theta}{2} - \frac{1}{2} \right \rangle </math>

where <math>\theta</math> is the angle between the common direction and the orientation of that particular molecule. The closer S is to unity, the more ordered (and closer to solid structure) the liquid crystal is. When S drops to zero, that means we have transitioned to a liquid state. Typical values of S are between 0.3 to 0.8. This value decreases as you increase the temperature, which makes sense since thermodynamic entropy increases. Order parameter dependence on temperature is shown on the upper right. As we can see, for small temperatures we approach (but never quite reach) the value of one. On the other hand, as we increase the temperature, we'll have a "breakdown point" at which we reach complete anisotropy. Increasing temperature above this critical point will not change anything.


"Switchable" glass

"Switchable" glass or "smart" glass is a type of glass that changes properties such as transparency and heat permittivity as voltage is applied. It is made of polymer dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC), which is a set of liquid crystals dissolved or dispersed into a liquid polymer, followed by solidification of the polymer. The resulting material is a sort of "swiss cheese" polymer with liquid crystal droplets filling in the holes. These tiny droplets (a few microns diameter) are responsible for the unique behavior of the material. When there is no electric voltage applied, the electric field is zero, and the droplets are oriented in all possible directions (see below). As electric filed is applied, we can see molecules orienting in-line with the field.

Random orientation of molecules when electric field is zero
When electric field is applied, all the molecules point in the same direction

The size and the configuration of the droplets are affected by the solidification conditions (changing temperature, pressure, applied field and other external variables). Furthermore, this affects the final operating properties of the "smart glass". There is a lot of research currently going on, exploring this topic. We will briefly explain several most important LC configurations.

  • Radial configuration is produced when the LC molecules are anchored with their long axes perpendicular to the droplet walls. This and all the following arrangements are shown in the images below. There is only one point defect in the center because we can orient the molecule in any direction and still be perpendicular to the surface.
  • Axial configuration is very similar to radial configuration and also occurs when the molecules are oriented perpendicular to the droplet wall. However, it only occurs when there is weak surface anchoring, creating a line defect that runs around the equator of the spherical droplet. When an electric field is applied to a radial droplet, the molecules adopt the axial configuration. The radial configuration is returned when the field is removed.
  • Bipolar configuration is created by tangential anchoring of the liquid crystal molecules. This creates two point defects at the poles of the droplet and is shown in the diagram below.







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