Liquid crystals are most recognized in the form of liquid crystal displays (LCDs)—found in everything from digital watches to notebook computers and flat-panel desktop monitors. But liquid crystals are far more talented than that. In the August 1 issue of the journal Science, for example, University of Wisconsin chemical engineer Nicholas Abbott reported a big step toward using them in flexible, inexpensive "smart-paper" displays, and in ultra-sensitive detectors for biomolecules or toxic chemicals.
Smart paper and biochemical sensors may seem very different, says Abbott, who did this work at Wisconsins Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, one of 27 such centers funded by the National Science Foundation. "But the unifying theme of our work is that a thin layer of liquid crystal can greatly amplify a wide range of activities on the underlying surface."
In earlier work, for example, he and his colleagues showed that when proteins or other small molecules were captured on a specially prepared surface, they would perturb the liquid crystal immediately above. But the long, thin molecules in the fluid are always trying to line up in the same direction, says Abbott; thats why theyre called "liquid crystals" in the first place. So the tiny distortions caused by the bound molecule propagate upward through the liquid for a tenth of a millimeter or so—a vast distance on a molecular scale. The result is a large, easily detectable change in the optical properties of the liquid crystal.
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