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How LCDs Work

Creating an LCD
(c) HowStuffWorks

There's more to building an LCD than simply creating a sheet of liquid crystals. The combination of four facts makes LCDs possible:

  • Light can be polarized. (See How Sunglasses Work for some fascinating information on polarization!)
  • Liquid crystals can transmit and change polarized light.
  • The structure of liquid crystals can be changed by electric current.
  • There are transparent substances that can conduct electricity.

An LCD is a device that uses these four facts in a surprising way.

To create an LCD, you take two pieces of polarized glass. A special polymer that creates microscopic grooves in the surface is rubbed on the side of the glass that does not have the polarizing film on it. The grooves must be in the same direction as the polarizing film. You then add a coating of nematic liquid crystals to one of the filters. The grooves will cause the first layer of molecules to align with the filter's orientation. Then add the second piece of glass with the polarizing film at a right angle to the first piece. Each successive layer of TN molecules will gradually twist until the uppermost layer is at a 90-degree angle to the bottom, matching the polarized glass filters.

As light strikes the first filter, it is polarized. The molecules in each layer then guide the light they receive to the next layer. As the light passes through the liquid crystal layers, the molecules also change the light's plane of vibration to match their own angle. When the light reaches the far side of the liquid crystal substance, it vibrates at the same angle as the final layer of molecules. If the final layer is matched up with the second polarized glass filter, then the light will pass through.

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If we apply an electric charge to liquid crystal molecules, they untwist. When they straighten out, they change the angle of the light passing through them so that it no longer matches the angle of the top polarizing filter. Consequently, no light can pass through that area of the LCD, which makes that area darker than the surrounding areas.

Building a simple LCD is easier than you think. Your start with the sandwich of glass and liquid crystals described above and add two transparent electrodes to it. For example, imagine that you want to create the simplest possible LCD with just a single rectangular electrode on it. The layers would look like this:

The LCD needed to do this job is very basic. It has a mirror (A) in back, which makes it reflective. Then, we add a piece of glass (B) with a polarizing film on the bottom side, and a common electrode plane (C) made of indium-tin oxide on top. A common electrode plane covers the entire area of the LCD. Above that is the layer of liquid crystal substance (D). Next comes another piece of glass (E) with an electrode in the shape of the rectangle on the bottom and, on top, another polarizing film (F), at a right angle to the first one.

The electrode is hooked up to a power source like a battery. When there is no current, light entering through the front of the LCD will simply hit the mirror and bounce right back out. But when the battery supplies current to the electrodes, the liquid crystals between the common-plane electrode and the electrode shaped like a rectangle untwist and block the light in that region from passing through. That makes the LCD show the rectangle as a black area.

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