All in the twist of a crystal

A research project which will use computers to answer questions about the behaviour of liquid crystals has begun at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr Philip Camp, at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Chemistry, has been awarded a £64,511 grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to investigate the connection between the molecular properties of liquid crystals and their visible characteristics.

Of particular interest are ferroelectric liquid crystals, which are made up of molecules carrying electric dipoles – like microscopic ‘compasses’ – that align spontaneously to point in the same direction. These materials are ideally suited for use in display devices and optical switches because of their characteristically fast response to applied electric fields.

Using computer simulation techniques, Dr Camp and his group seek to understand the properties and structures of such materials. By altering the size, shape, and flexibility of the model molecules, the correlation between molecular and physical properties can be established.

‘The goal is to be able to predict the physical properties of liquid crystals from knowledge about the constituent molecules’, said Dr Camp. ‘The intimate connection between the molecular and physical properties of these materials is poorly understood, which makes it almost impossible to direct the design of new materials with a set of desired characteristics. We hope that this research will help the design process and the commercial application of liquid crystals, as well as deepen our fundamental understanding of these fascinating materials.’

He added, ‘This project is particularly timely because of the world-wide experimental activity in liquid-crystal science, and the increasing range of potential applications for liquid crystals. Ferroelectric and antiferroelectric liquid crystals are of particular interest because of their characteristically fast switching times in applied electric fields,’ he said.