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Science and Technology

Exploradio - The liquid crystal kingdom
The future is now at Kent State's Liquid Crystal Institute, the world's foremost lab dedicated to research in this mysterious state of matter.
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Occupying a state between liquid and solid phases, liquid crystals respond to minute electric fields in a myriad of display and other applications. You're likely viewing this on an LCD panel.
Courtesy of Karen Neill
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Look around and you’re likely to encounter liquid crystal technology -  your computer screen, alarm clock, cell phone, calculator -- even  the parking meter. 

What was once an obscure branch of chemistry is now indispensible technology, and the world center for liquid crystal research is at Kent State University.

In this week’s Exploradio, we meet the new head of the program, and learn what’s next at the Liquid Crystal Institute.

Exploradio - The liquid crystal kingdom

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From cell membranes to magic cloaks

Harry Potter had one.  And it’s not just Hogwarts’ magic if you ask what Hiroshi Yokoyama is working on …

“Have you ever heard of the ‘invisibility cloak’?” 

“You’re working on that?”

“Some of our researchers are working on that here.”

Yokoyama explains that his researchers are imbedding ‘metamaterials’ that can bend light inside a liquid crystal fabric.

“Metamaterial is artificial optical material that can manipulate optical waves…”  -  an invisibility cloak.

It’s just one of a long list of futuristic sounding advances being developed at the world’s foremost lab dedicated to liquid crystal research. 

Yokoyama is the fifth director of the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University.  The institute was the brainchild in 1965 of Kent State chemistry professor Glenn Brown, who likely never dreamed of invisibility cloaks.  His interest was liquid crystals in living things, which Yokoyama explains, are quite common.

“Actually most of the cell’s membranes and small organelles in it, proteins, DNA for example, all are in liquid crystal states.”

Despite his personal interests, Brown founded the institute to study all aspects of liquid crystals, which were just being rediscovered after nearly 80 years of obscurity. German scientists in the 1880’s had accidentally discovered molecules that, when heated, went through a mysterious phase between the solid and liquid phases.  They named this flowing liquid with the organized structure of a solid a ‘liquid crystal’.

The birth of the LCD

The discovery sat dormant until a few chemists in the 1960’s, including  Kent State’s Brown, took an interest.  Soon Kent State chemist James Fergason discovered a new type of liquid crystal that responded to very low voltages and he patented the first liquid crystal display. Fergason formed a company and quickly sold the technology to Swiss watch-maker Gruen. In a glass case at the institute, Yokoyama points to the first LCD watch….

“the wrist-watch right here, made in the 1970’s…still working…”

The technology invented at the Liquid Crystal Institute was quickly adapted to everything from calculators to clocks, Yokoyama even points to a liquid-crystal parking meter. 

“Yeah, a parking meter is a pretty trivial application of the liquid crystal.”

“Still Kent State is very proud…”

There’s even a mood ring in the display case.

But Yokoyama says liquid crystals have come a long way since the 70’s.

The dream factory 

These days, in addition to the invisibility cloak idea, liquid crystals are being used in self-correcting eye-glasses with liquid crystal lenses - no need for bifocals. Even the tiny lens inside your cell-phone camera uses liquid crystals to focus when you take a picture.

Some of Yokoyama’s  team are working on the next generation of display technologies, including 3-D liquid crystal displays. 

Yokoyama says the institute is returning to its roots in biological liquid crystals. It’s developing advanced drug delivery devices that can fine-tune drug therapy 

 “Liquid crystals can be tuned to respond to certain molecules extremely sensitively.”

We step into his lab where he’s following another line of research.

“To make a foam of liquid crystals.”

“Why would you want liquid crystal foam.”

“Foam like Styrofoam are very good at insulating heat.”

Yokoyama imagines a transparent, liquid-crystal insulation for windows.   He acknowledges it’s a long-term side project. 

 World-wide reputation

Yokoyama is one of two dozen Ohio research scholars who are funded by Ohio’s Third Frontier program.  In 2008, the state invested 15 million dollars to study the surface properties of advanced materials.  Other funding comes from the National Science Foundation, the military, and collaborations with the electronics industry. 

Before moving to Ohio, Hiroshi Yokoyama headed Japan’s largest government-funded research institute.  But even when he started in the field in1980 he had heard of Kent State’s work.  And it’s reputation remains strong worldwide – for example, the cutting-edge displays on Apple’s iPhone and iPad were designed by graduates of the Liquid Crystal Institute. 

I’m JSTC with this week’s Exploradio. 

Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Wooster's solar record
Monday, September 12, 2011

Exploradio: The natural origins of music
Monday, August 22, 2011

Exploradio - The Power of Crystals
Monday, August 15, 2011

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