How LCDs Work
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.
Creating an LCD
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.
For more Detail: How LCDs Work
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