How LCDs Work

Most liquid crystal molecules are rod-shaped and are broadly categorized as either thermotropic or lyotropic.

Image courtesy Dr. Oleg Lavrentovich, Liquid Crystal Institute

Nematic Phase Liquid Crystals

Just as there are many varieties of solids and liquids, there is also a variety of liquid crystal substances. Depending on the temperature and particular nature of a substance, liquid crystals can be in one of several distinct phases (see below). In this article, we will discuss liquid crystals in the nematic phase, the liquid crystals that make LCDs possible.

One feature of liquid crystals is that they're affected by electric current. A particular sort of nematic liquid crystal, called twisted nematics (TN), is naturally twisted. Applying an electric current to these liquid crystals will untwist them to varying degrees, depending on the current's voltage. LCDs use these liquid crystals because they react predictably to electric current in such a way as to control light passage.

Most liquid crystal molecules are rod-shaped and are broadly categorized as either thermotropic or lyotropic.

­Thermotropic liquid crystals will react to changes in temperature or, in some cases, pressure. The reaction of lyotropic liquid crystals, which are used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents, depends on the type of solvent they are mixed with. Thermotropic liquid crystals are either isotropic or nematic. The key difference is that the molecules in isotropic liquid crystal substances are random in their arrangement, while nematics have a definite order or pattern.

The orientation of the molecules in the nematic phase is based on the director. The director can be anything from a magnetic field to a surface that has microscopic grooves in it. In the nematic phase, liquid crystals can be further classified by the way molecules orient themselves in respect to one another. Smectic, the most common arrangement, creates layers of molecules. There are many variations of the smectic phase, such as smectic C, in which the molecules in each layer tilt at an angle from the previous layer. Another common phase is cholesteric, also known as chiral nematic. In this phase, the molecules twist slightly from one layer to the next, resulting in a spiral formation.

Ferroelectric liquid crystals (FLCs) use liquid crystal substances that have chiral molecules in a smectic C type of arrangement because the spiral nature of these molecules allows the microsecond switching response time that make FLCs particularly suited to advanced displays. Surface-stabilized ferroelectric liquid crystals (SSFLCs) apply controlled pressure through the use of a glass plate, suppressing the spiral of the molecules to make the switching even more rapid.