In 1888, Friedrich Reinitzer was studying the substance cholesteryl benzoate when he
discovered that it had two distinct melting points ' the solid changed first into an opaque
liquid, then on raising the temperature further the material became a clear liquid. The
intermediate, opaque liquid was termed the liquid crystal phase.
Most liquid crystals have common characteristics; firstly the molecules tend to be
rod-shaped, have a rigid backbone and strong dipoles (or easily polarisable substituents).
These rod-like molecules can align in different ways to give different degrees of order in
the liquid crystal, (or 'mesogenic'), state.
Examples are the 'nematic' phase, in which the rods all point in the same direction but
have little lateral order, and the 'smectic' phase, in which there is alignment and a
degree of lateral order.
Many liquid crystals are simple polymeric organic compounds. We tend to think of polymers
as flexible (polythenes etc.) so for liquid crystals the polymers have to incorporate a
rigid section, either in the long polymer section (main chain liquid crystals) or attached
to the polymer as a 'side chain'. But the basic elements involved are simply C, H, N, O
(for example) - so that's what they're made of!
For those that don't know, in LCD displays, use is made of linear polarisers, familiar to
most as the glass in polarising sunglasses. If you
'cross' two polarisers (i.e. arrange them at 90 degrees to each other) then light does not
pass through. This is the basis of the LCD, but between the cross polars the liquid
crystals are arranged with a 'twist'. This twist allows light to pass through. However,
when an electric field is passed through the liquid crystals, the twist is removed, and so
light cannot pass through ' the area appears black.
Answered by: Jan Skakle, Ph.D., Lecturer, University of Aberdeen, Scotland UK
'Our job in physics is to see things simply, to understand a great many complicated phenomena, in terms of a few simple principles.'