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Liquid crystal

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Title: Liquid crystal  
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Subject: Liquid-crystal display, Martin Schadt, Phase transition, Condensed matter physics, Otto Lehmann (physicist)
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Liquid crystal

etry similar to quasicrystals.[24][25]

Although blue phases are of interest for fast light modulators or tunable photonic crystals, they exist in a very narrow temperature range, usually less than a few kelvin. Recently the stabilization of blue phases over a temperature range of more than 60 K including room temperature (260–326 K) has been demonstrated.[26][27] Blue phases stabilized at room temperature allow electro-optical switching with response times of the order of 10−4 s.[28]

In May 2008, the first Blue Phase Mode LCD panel had been developed.[29]

Discotic phases

Disk-shaped LC molecules can orient themselves in a layer-like fashion known as the discotic nematic phase. If the disks pack into stacks, the phase is called a discotic columnar. The columns themselves may be organized into rectangular or hexagonal arrays. Chiral discotic phases, similar to the chiral nematic phase, are also known.

Lyotropic liquid crystals

Structure of lyotropic liquid crystal. The red heads of surfactant molecules are in contact with water, whereas the tails are immersed in oil (blue): bilayer (left) and micelle (right).

A lyotropic liquid crystal consists of two or more components that exhibit liquid-crystalline properties in certain concentration ranges. In the lyotropic phases, solvent molecules fill the space around the compounds to provide fluidity to the system.[1] In contrast to thermotropic liquid crystals, these lyotropics have another degree of freedom of concentration that enables them to induce a variety of different phases.

A compound that has two immiscible hydrophilic and hydrophobic parts within the same molecule is called an amphiphilic molecule. Many amphiphilic molecules show lyotropic liquid-crystalline phase sequences depending on the volume balances between the hydrophilic part and hydrophobic part. These structures are formed through the micro-phase segregation of two incompatible components on a nanometer scale. Soap is an everyday example of a lyotropic liquid crystal.

The content of water or other solvent molecules changes the self-assembled structures. At very low amphiphile concentration, the molecules will be dispersed randomly without any ordering. At slightly higher (but still low) concentration, amphiphilic molecules will spontaneously assemble into micelles or vesicles. This is done so as to 'hide' the hydrophobic tail of the amphiphile inside the micelle core, exposing a hydrophilic (water-soluble) surface to aqueous solution. These spherical objects do not order themselves in solution, however. At higher concentration, the assemblies will become ordered. A typical phase is a hexagonal columnar phase, where the amphiphiles form long cylinders (again with a hydrophilic surface) that arrange themselves into a roughly hexagonal lattice. This is called the middle soap phase. At still higher concentration, a lamellar phase (neat soap phase) may form, wherein extended sheets of amphiphiles are separated by thin layers of water. For some systems, a cubic (also called viscous isotropic) phase may exist between the hexagonal and lamellar phases, wherein spheres are formed that create a dense cubic lattice. These spheres may also be connected to one another, forming a bicontinuous cubic phase.

The objects created by amphiphiles are usually spherical (as in the case of micelles), but may also be disc-like (bicelles), rod-like, or biaxial (all three micelle axes are distinct). These anisotropic self-assembled nano-structures can then order themselves in much the same way as thermotropic liquid crystals do, forming large-scale versions of all the thermotropic phases (such as a nematic phase of rod-shaped micelles).

For some systems, at high concentrations, inverse phases are observed. That is, one may generate an inverse hexagonal columnar phase (columns of water encapsulated by amphiphiles) or an inverse micellar phase (a bulk liquid crystal sample with spherical water cavities).

A generic progression of phases, going from low to high amphiphile concentration, is:

Even within the same phases, their self-assembled structures are tunable by the concentration: for example, in lamellar phases, the layer distances increase with the solvent volume. Since lyotropic liquid crystals rely on a subtle balance of intermolecular interactions, it is more difficult to analyze their structures and properties than those of thermotropic liquid crystals.

Similar phases and characteristics can be observed in immiscible diblock copolymers.

Metallotropic liquid crystals

Liquid crystal phases can also be based on low-melting inorganic phases like

  • "History and Properties of Liquid Crystals". Retrieved June 6, 2009. 
  • Definitions of basic terms relating to low-molar-mass and polymer liquid crystals (IUPAC Recommendations 2001)
  • An intelligible introduction to liquid crystals from Case Western Reserve University
  • Liquid Crystal Physics tutorial from the Liquid Crystals Group, University of Colorado
  • Liquid Crystals & Photonics Group – Ghent University (Belgium), good tutorial
  • Simulation of light propagation in liquid crystals, free program
  • Liquid Crystals Interactive Online
  • Liquid Crystal Institute Kent State University
  • Liquid Crystals a journal by Taylor&Francis
  • Molecular Crystals and Liquid Crystals a journal by Taylor & Francis
  • Hot-spot detection techniques for ICs
  • What are liquid crystals? from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
  • H. Kleinert and K. Maki (1981). "Lattice Textures in Cholesteric Liquid Crystals". Fortschritte Physik 29 (5): 219.  
  • Progress in liquid crystal chemistry Thematic series in the Open Access Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry
  • DoITPoMS Teaching and Learning Package- "Liquid Crystals"

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See also

Many common fluids, such as soapy water, are in fact liquid crystals. Soap forms a variety of LC phases depending on its concentration in water.[52]

Polymer Dispersed Liquid Crystal (PDLC) sheets and rolls are available as adhesive backed Smart film which can be applied to windows and electrically switched between transparent and opaque to provide privacy.

Liquid crystal lasers use a liquid crystal in the lasing medium as a distributed feedback mechanism instead of external mirrors. Emission at a photonic bandgap created by the periodic dielectric structure of the liquid crystal gives a low-threshold high-output device with stable monochromatic emission.[50][51]

Thermotropic chiral LCs whose pitch varies strongly with temperature can be used as crude liquid crystal 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 as well as on thermometers for infants or baths.[48] 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.[49]

Liquid crystal tunable filters are used as electrooptical devices, e.g., in hyperspectral imaging.

Liquid crystals find wide use in liquid crystal displays, which rely on the optical properties of certain liquid crystalline substances in the presence or absence of an electric field. In a typical device, a liquid crystal layer (typically 10 μm thick) sits between two polarizers that are crossed (oriented at 90° to one another). The liquid crystal alignment is chosen so that its relaxed phase is a twisted one (see Twisted nematic field effect).[8] This twisted phase reorients light that has passed through the first polarizer, allowing its transmission through the second polarizer (and reflected back to the observer if a reflector is provided). The device thus appears transparent. When an electric field is applied to the LC layer, the long molecular axes tend to align parallel to the electric field thus gradually untwisting in the center of the liquid crystal layer. In this state, the LC molecules do not reorient light, so the light polarized at the first polarizer is absorbed at the second polarizer, and the device loses transparency with increasing voltage. In this way, the electric field can be used to make a pixel switch between transparent or opaque on command. Color LCD systems use the same technique, with color filters used to generate red, green, and blue pixels.[8] Similar principles can be used to make other liquid crystal based optical devices.[47]

"WorldHeritage" displayed on an LCD, connected to an Arduino board
Structure of liquid crystal display: 1 – vertical polarization filter, 2,4 – glass with electrodes, 3 – liquid crystals, 5 – horizontal polarization filter, 6 – reflector

Applications of liquid crystals

Chirality can also be incorporated into a phase by adding a chiral dopant, which may not form LCs itself. Twisted-nematic or super-twisted nematic mixtures often contain a small amount of such dopants.

It is possible for chiral LC molecules to produce essentially achiral mesophases. For instance, in certain ranges of concentration and molecular weight, DNA will form an achiral line hexatic phase. An interesting recent observation is of the formation of chiral mesophases from achiral LC molecules. Specifically, bent-core molecules (sometimes called banana liquid crystals) have been shown to form liquid crystal phases that are chiral.[44] In any particular sample, various domains will have opposite handedness, but within any given domain, strong chiral ordering will be present. The appearance mechanism of this macroscopic chirality is not yet entirely clear. It appears that the molecules stack in layers and orient themselves in a tilted fashion inside the layers. These liquid crystals phases may be ferroelectric or anti-ferroelectric, both of which are of interest for applications.[45][46]

Chiral phases usually have a helical twisting of the molecules. If the pitch of this twist is on the order of the wavelength of visible light, then interesting optical interference effects can be observed. The chiral twisting that occurs in chiral LC phases also makes the system respond differently from right- and left-handed circularly polarized light. These materials can thus be used as polarization filters.[43]

As already described, chiral liquid-crystal molecules usually give rise to chiral mesophases. This means that the molecule must possess some form of asymmetry, usually a stereogenic center. An additional requirement is that the system not be racemic: a mixture of right- and left-handed molecules will cancel the chiral effect. Due to the cooperative nature of liquid crystal ordering, however, a small amount of chiral dopant in an otherwise achiral mesophase is often enough to select out one domain handedness, making the system overall chiral.

Effect of chirality

The Fredericks transition is fundamental to the operation of many liquid crystal displays because the director orientation (and thus the properties) can be controlled easily by the application of a field.

The competition between orientation produced by surface anchoring and by electric field effects is often exploited in liquid crystal devices. Consider the case in which liquid crystal molecules are aligned parallel to the surface and an electric field is applied perpendicular to the cell. At first, as the electric field increases in magnitude, no change in alignment occurs. However at a threshold magnitude of electric field, deformation occurs. Deformation occurs where the director changes its orientation from one molecule to the next. The occurrence of such a change from an aligned to a deformed state is called a Fredericks transition and can also be produced by the application of a magnetic field of sufficient strength.

Fredericks transition

In the absence of an external field, the director of a liquid crystal is free to point in any direction. It is possible, however, to force the director to point in a specific direction by introducing an outside agent to the system. For example, when a thin polymer coating (usually a polyimide) is spread on a glass substrate and rubbed in a single direction with a cloth, it is observed that liquid crystal molecules in contact with that surface align with the rubbing direction. The currently accepted mechanism for this is believed to be an epitaxial growth of the liquid crystal layers on the partially aligned polymer chains in the near surface layers of the polyimide.

Surface preparations

Even if a molecule does not form a permanent dipole, it can still be influenced by an electric field. In some cases, the field produces slight re-arrangement of electrons and protons in molecules such that an induced electric dipole results. While not as strong as permanent dipoles, orientation with the external field still occurs. The effects of magnetic fields on liquid crystal molecules are analogous to electric fields. Because magnetic fields are generated by moving electric charges, permanent magnetic dipoles are produced by electrons moving about atoms. When a magnetic field is applied, the molecules will tend to align with or against the field.

The ability of the director to align along an external field is caused by the electric nature of the molecules. Permanent electric dipoles result when one end of a molecule has a net positive charge while the other end has a net negative charge. When an external electric field is applied to the liquid crystal, the dipole molecules tend to orient themselves along the direction of the field.

Electric and magnetic field effects

Scientists and engineers are able to use liquid crystals in a variety of applications because external perturbation can cause significant changes in the macroscopic properties of the liquid crystal system. Both electric and magnetic fields can be used to induce these changes. The magnitude of the fields, as well as the speed at which the molecules align are important characteristics industry deals with. Special surface treatments can be used in liquid crystal devices to force specific orientations of the director.

External influences on liquid crystals

In this formalism, a liquid crystal material is treated as a continuum; molecular details are entirely ignored. Rather, this theory considers perturbations to a presumed oriented sample. The distortions of the liquid crystal are commonly described by the Frank free energy density. One can identify three types of distortions that could occur in an oriented sample: (1) twists of the material, where neighboring molecules are forced to be angled with respect to one another, rather than aligned; (2) splay of the material, where bending occurs perpendicular to the director; and (3) bend of the material, where the distortion is parallel to the director and molecular axis. All three of these types of distortions incur an energy penalty. They are distortions that are induced by the boundary conditions at domain walls or the enclosing container. The response of the material can then be decomposed into terms based on the elastic constants corresponding to the three types of distortions. Elastic continuum theory is a particularly powerful tool for modeling liquid crystal devices [41] and lipid bilayers.[42]

Elastic continuum theory

Here constant α quantifies the strength of the interaction between adjacent molecules. The potential is then used to derive the thermodynamic properties of the system assuming thermal equilibrium. It results in two self-consistency equations that must be solved numerically, the solutions of which are the three stable phases of the liquid crystal.[17]

U_i(\theta_i,z_i)=-U_0\left (S+\alpha\sigma\cos\left (\frac{2\pi z_i}{d}\right )\right )\left (\frac{3}{2}\cos^2\theta_i-\frac{1}{2}\right )

The values zi, θi, and d are the position of the molecule, the angle between the molecular axis and director, and the layer spacing. The postulated potential energy of a single molecule is given by:

\sigma=\left\langle\cos\left (\frac{2\pi z_i}{d}\right )\left (\frac{3}{2}\cos^2\theta_i-\frac{1}{2}\right )\right\rangle

McMillan's model, proposed by William McMillan,[40] is an extension of the Maier–Saupe mean field theory used to describe the phase transition of a liquid crystal from a nematic to a smectic A phase. It predicts that the phase transition can be either continuous or discontinuous depending on the strength of the short-range interaction between the molecules. As a result, it allows for a triple critical point where the nematic, isotropic, and smectic A phase meet. Although it predicts the existence of a triple critical point, it does not successfully predict its value. The model utilizes two order parameters that describe the orientational and positional order of the liquid crystal. The first is simply the average of the second Legendre polynomial and the second order parameter is given by:

McMillan's model

This statistical theory, proposed by Alfred Saupe and Wilhelm Maier, includes contributions from an attractive intermolecular potential from an induced dipole moment between adjacent liquid crystal molecules. The anisotropic attraction stabilizes parallel alignment of neighboring molecules, and the theory then considers a mean-field average of the interaction. Solved self-consistently, this theory predicts thermotropic nematic-isotropic phase transitions, consistent with experiment.[37][38][39]

Maier–Saupe mean field theory

The fundamental insight here is that, whilst parallel arrangements of anisotropic objects lead to a decrease in orientational entropy, there is an increase in positional entropy. Thus in some case greater positional order will be entropically favorable. This theory thus predicts that a solution of rod-shaped objects will undergo a phase transition, at sufficient concentration, into a nematic phase. Although this model is conceptually helpful, its mathematical formulation makes several assumptions that limit its applicability to real systems.[36]

A simple model which predicts lyotropic phase transitions is the hard-rod model proposed by Lars Onsager. This theory considers the volume excluded from the center-of-mass of one idealized cylinder as it approaches another. Specifically, if the cylinders are oriented parallel to one another, there is very little volume that is excluded from the center-of-mass of the approaching cylinder (it can come quite close to the other cylinder). If, however, the cylinders are at some angle to one another, then there is a large volume surrounding the cylinder which the approaching cylinder's center-of-mass cannot enter (due to the hard-rod repulsion between the two idealized objects). Thus, this angular arrangement sees a decrease in the net positional entropy of the approaching cylinder (there are fewer states available to it).[35][36]

List of unsolved problems in physics
Can the nematic to smectic (A) phase transition in liquid crystal states be characterized as a universal phase transition?

Onsager hard-rod model

The complex positional order parameter is defined as \psi (\mathbf{r})=\rho_1 (\mathbf{r})e^{i\phi(\mathbf{r})} and \rho_0 the average density. Typically only the first two terms are kept and higher order terms are ignored since most phases can be described adequately using sinusoidal functions. For a perfect nematic \psi=0 and for a smectic phase \psi will take on complex values. The complex nature of this order parameter allows for many parallels between nematic to smectic phase transitions and conductor to superconductor transitions.[15]

\rho (\mathbf{r})=\rho (z)=\rho_0+\rho_1\cos\left (q_sz-\phi\right )+\cdots \,

A positional order parameter is also used to describe the ordering of a liquid crystal. It is characterized by the variation of the density of the center of mass of the liquid crystal molecules along a given vector. In the case of positional variation along the z-axis the density \rho (z) is often given by:

The order of a liquid crystal could also be characterized by using other even Legendre polynomials (all the odd polynomials average to zero since the director can point in either of two antiparallel directions). These higher-order averages are more difficult to measure, but can yield additional information about molecular ordering.[1]

where \theta is the angle between the liquid-crystal molecular axis and the local director (which is the 'preferred direction' in a volume element of a liquid crystal sample, also representing its local optical axis). The brackets denote both a temporal and spatial average. This definition is convenient, since for a completely random and isotropic sample, S=0, whereas for a perfectly aligned sample S=1. For a typical liquid crystal sample, S is on the order of 0.3 to 0.8, and generally decreases as the temperature is raised. In particular, a sharp drop of the order parameter to 0 is observed when the system undergoes a phase transition from an LC phase into the isotropic phase.[34] The order parameter can be measured experimentally in a number of ways; for instance, diamagnetism, birefringence, Raman scattering, NMR and EPR can be used to determine S.[17]

S = \langle P_2(\cos \theta) \rangle = \left \langle \frac{3 \cos^2 \theta-1}{2} \right \rangle

The description of liquid crystals involves an analysis of order. A second rank symmetric traceless tensor order parameter is used to describe the orientational order of a nematic liquid crystal, although a scalar order parameter is usually sufficient to describe uniaxial nematic liquid crystals. To make this quantitative, an orientational order parameter is usually defined based on the average of the second Legendre polynomial:

The local nematic director, which is also the local optical axis, is given by the spatial and temporal average of the long molecular axes

Order parameter

As we already saw above, the nematic liquid crystals are composed of rod-like molecules with the long axes of neighboring molecules aligned approximately to one another. To allow this anisotropic structure, a dimensionless unit vector n called the director, is introduced to represent the direction of preferred orientation of molecules in the neighborhood of any point. Because there is no physical polarity along the director axis, n and -n are fully equivalent.[15]


Microscopic theoretical treatment of fluid phases can become quite complicated, owing to the high material density, meaning that strong interactions, hard-core repulsions, and many-body correlations cannot be ignored. In the case of liquid crystals, anisotropy in all of these interactions further complicates analysis. There are a number of fairly simple theories, however, that can at least predict the general behavior of the phase transitions in liquid crystal systems.

Theoretical treatment of liquid crystals

Anisotropy of liquid crystals is a property not observed in other fluids. This anisotropy makes flows of liquid crystals behave more differentially than those of ordinary fluids. For example, injection of a flux of a liquid crystal between two close parallel plates (viscous fingering), causes orientation of the molecules to couple with the flow, with the resulting emergence of dendritic patterns.[31] This anisotropy is also manifested in the interfacial energy (surface tension) between different liquid crystal phases. This anisotropy determines the equilibrium shape at the coexistence temperature, and is so strong that usually facets appear. When temperature is changed one of the phases grows, forming different morphologies depending on the temperature change.[32] Since growth is controlled by heat diffusion, anisotropy in thermal conductivity favors growth in specific directions, which has also an effect on the final shape.[33]

Pattern formation in liquid crystals

Many other biological structures exhibit liquid-crystal behavior. For instance, the concentrated protein solution that is extruded by a spider to generate silk is, in fact, a liquid crystal phase. The precise ordering of molecules in silk is critical to its renowned strength. DNA and many polypeptides can also form LC phases and this too forms an important part of current academic research.

Lyotropic liquid-crystalline phases are abundant in living systems, the study of which is referred to as lipid polymorphism. Accordingly, lyotropic liquid crystals attract particular attention in the field of biomimetic chemistry. In particular, biological membranes and cell membranes are a form of liquid crystal. Their constituent molecules (e.g. phospholipids) are perpendicular to the membrane surface, yet the membrane is flexible. These lipids vary in shape (see page on lipid polymorphism). The constituent molecules can inter-mingle easily, but tend not to leave the membrane due to the high energy requirement of this process. Lipid molecules can flip from one side of the membrane to the other, this process being catalyzed by flippases and floppases (depending on the direction of movement). These liquid crystal membrane phases can also host important proteins such as receptors freely "floating" inside, or partly outside, the membrane, e.g. CCT.

Biological liquid crystals

Lyotropic mesophases are analyzed in a similar fashion, through these experiments are somewhat more complex, as the concentration of mesogen is a key factor. These experiments are run at various concentrations of mesogen in order to analyze that impact.

Thermotropic mesophases are detected and characterized by two major methods, the original method was use of thermal optical microscopy, in which a small sample of the material was placed between two crossed polarizers; the sample was then heated and cooled. As the isotropic phase would not significantly affect the polarization of the light, it would appear very dark, whereas the crystal and liquid crystal phases will both polarize the light in a uniform way, leading to brightness and color gradients. This method allows for the characterization of the particular phase, as the different phases are defined by their particular order, which must be observed. The second method, Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC), allows for more precise determination of phase transitions and transition enthalpies. In DSC, a small sample is heated in a way that generates a very precise change in temperature with respect to time. During phase transitions, the heat flow required to maintain this heating or cooling rate will change. These changes can be observed and attributed to various phase transitions, such as key liquid crystal transitions.

Laboratory analysis of mesophases


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