Study Chemistry and Liquid Crystals

If you are looking to choose a course of study for a higher degree, you will find that you have many choices and that the UK offers a wide variety of courses. You will want your course to develop you both academically and personally, enriching your subject-specific knowledge and your general (i.e. transferable) skills. Of course, your choice can have a direct influence on your future career prospects, so for this reason it is wise to choose one that both appeals strongly to your interests and offers good employment prospects.

Study Chemistry and Liquid Crystals

Flat-panel displays have come a long way since the commercialisation of low-cost and reliable liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in the 1970s, which used compounds synthesised and manufactured in the UK. From the first, small watch displays, there is now an industry worth more than $60 billion per annum, with the area of LCDs manufactured set to increase by more than 50% in the next two years due to growth in sales of LCD televisions. And, of course, the technology has moved on, too. The first displays were monochrome, whereas full-colour displays are now readily available. Angle of view was also an early problem, but now extremely wide angles are commonplace; indeed, so good is the wide-angle viewing that new technology allows this to be reduced where privacy is an issue. The availability of low-cost, low power-consumption displays has also allowed the development of a wide range of consumer products, most notably mobile phones.

The design and availability of new liquid crystal materials has been central to these advances and so a detailed understanding of the relationship between chemical structure and physical properties is crucial. Indeed, it is the dynamic nature of this interplay that is responsible for the dominance of liquid crystals as the flat-panel display technology – a position that will not change for the forseeable future.

Yet liquid crystals are about so much more than displays. For example, the high yield-strength material Kevlar® is a copolyamide formed from 1,4-diaminobenzene and benzene-1,4-dicarboxylic acid. It forms a liquid crystal phase in sulfuric acid and owes its strength to the fact that its fibres are spun from the aligned liquid crystal phase; spider silk is another example of a strong material that owes it properties to the fact that it is spun from the liquid crystal phase. This opens up the field of biological chemistry where we find that the materials that make up our cell membranes have liquid crystal properties as does DNA itself. Another familiar application of liquid crystals is in thermometers that change colour with temperature, a property that relies on the use of chiral materials.

In probing further how liquid crystals work, the behaviour of matter at both the nano- and meso-scales is considered and our understanding is enhanced by the use of computational methods that are able both to rationalise observations that are made and predict new phenomena. These methods are underpinned by well-established theories and models, and can provide powerful insights into the collective behaviour of matter at these length scales.

However, in addition to the science and technology that characterises liquid crystals, it has its aesthetic side. Thus, there are many different liquid crystal phases, and the main method used to identify them is polarised optical microscopy. The technique takes advantage of the fact that the physical properties of LC phases are anisotropic so that plane polarised light that passes through a liquid crystal phase is split into two, different rays (birefringence). The two rays interfere with one another and, viewed between crossed polarisers, give characteristic textures that are diagnostic of a particular phase.

As the science and technology that is liquid crystals continues to grow and develop, the demand for individuals with detailed knowledge of the area can only grow, too.

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