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Channels in liquid crystals can help create innovative nanomaterials

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Posted September 28, 2015

Liquid crystals are very widely used these days. It is actually a great chance that this article currently is being read on a display using liquid crystal technology. However, there is much more to liquid crystals than just displays of computers and TVs. Now scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison say that by designing defects into liquid crystals they can enlarge list of applications of liquid crystals to other kinds of electronics as well as medicine.

Liquid crystal displays are used everywhere – phones, TVs, computers and even in cars. Now scientists are working on a technique which would use defects in liquid crystals to guide molecules to form nanostructures. Image credit: Minutemen via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Liquid crystal displays are used everywhere – phones, TVs, computers and even in cars. Now scientists are working on a technique which would use defects in liquid crystals to guide molecules to form nanostructures. Image credit: Minutemen via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

These imperfections can be used as miniscule tubing, channelling molecules into specific positions to form new materials and nanoscale structures. Scientists say that such technology would be very versatile, as they would be able to control geometry of the system and quickly change location of such channels.

Early experiments show promise for this technology – team of researchers already managed to assemble phospholipids — molecules that can organize into layers in the walls of living cells — within liquid crystal defects. Even at such early stage of development of this technology, scientists can already see unlimited potential of this technology. They say this technique could be very effective at assembling metallic wires and various semiconducting structures that are crucially necessary for new generation of electronics.

Furthermore, scientists can manipulate these channels further, making their passage selective to type of molecules. In other words, they can adapt the system so that some of the molecules would pass through while others would not. However, now researchers are developing the method itself, not looking for certain applications, as now they are trying to show how versatile this technique can be fabricating structures that cannot be made in any other way.

Nicholas Abbott, one of the authors of the study, has been working on this field for a long time. He has been researching the surfaces of soft materials, including liquid crystals. He was very interested in this particular field, because in this particular phase of the matter liquid-like materials also exhibit some of the molecular organization of solids. He noted that this new research is still new for him, even after all these years of research.

Abbott said: “we’ve done a lot of work in the past at the interfaces of liquid crystals, but we’re now looking inside the liquid crystal. We’re looking at how to use the internal structure of liquid crystals to direct the organization of molecules. There’s no prior example of using a defect in a liquid crystal to template molecular organization.”

Researchers are able to control the geometry of liquid crystals they are working with. By doing so, scientists achieve different defects, which ultimately would have different practical applications.  Team manipulated geometry of liquid crystalline system to make defects shaped like ropes or lines. They called these lines “disclinations” and say that during experiments they formed templates scientists could fill with amphiphilic (water- and fat-loving) molecules.

After these templates are formed, assemblies of molecules can be linked together and templates can be removed. This leaves the amphiphilic building blocks in a lasting, nanoscale structure, which later can be introduced into some practical applications.

This research is just one example how science still has to work with technologies that, it seems, we know pretty well already. Scientists say that it goes to show how liquid crystal research is taking us from the nano to macro world and how important cooperation between different fields is.

When the technique is perfected, it will benefit electronics, as well as medicine and, possibly, other fields as well, even though it relies on technology that has been in use in our everyday devices for quite some time already. But we will have to wait and see how this research will develop and how much time it will take for it to reach phase when industries will be able to benefit from it.

Source: wisc.edu

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