Liquid Crystal Institute gets new-name treatment, license to expand

Paige Bennett

For over 50 years, the university has received international recognition for its research on liquid crystals.

Now, that research is changing.

The Liquid Crystal Institute became the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute in September. The Faculty Senate approved the name change at a meeting in December 2017.

The purpose of the name change was to broaden the institute’s research while maintaining its focus on liquid crystals, said John West, interim director of the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute. West has been serving as interim director since 2016. He previously held the position from 1996 to 2002.

“It was an idea that there was an opportunity to build on the foundation of the Liquid Crystal Institute and expand our reach to encompass materials that have a lot of similarities but aren’t necessarily liquid crystal,” West said.

West believes the change will enhance the university’s research capabilities by involving colleges on campus, such as the College of Podiatric Medicine and the Fashion School, which use liquid crystals and other materials researched at the institute.

“Beyond the chemistry, physics, biology that we normally do,” West said. “We’re looking at working with other colleges on campus that might be utilizing the materials.”

In addition, the new name will account for the various ways researchers at the institute study liquid crystals, said James Blank, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Although many people recognize liquid crystals for their use in flat panel displays, they can serve other purposes.

“They can be used for sensors,” Blank said. “They can be developed into light devices.”

The new name will enable the institute to explore different uses for liquid crystals, as well as any materials used by the next generation of researchers, Blank said.


Founded by chemistry professor Glenn H. Brown in 1965, the Liquid Crystal Institute became the first research center in the world to concentrate on the basic and applied science of liquid crystals.

According to the institute’s website, large grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health enabled the institute to develop the field of liquid crystals. Considered the birthplace of the twisted nematic cell, a key component of liquid crystal displays, the institute has garnered worldwide recognition for its contributions to the display industry. 

Liquid crystal research rapidly increased around the early 90s because the display industry began using liquid crystals in flat panel displays, Blank said.

“Because Kent State was at the forefront of that,” Blank said. “It became internationally recognized for its research of liquid crystals.

However, the display industry does not use liquid crystals displays as often as it once did, Blank said. Consequently, the university started looking for ways to expand the institute’s research. 

“We began talking about ‘what’s coming?’” Blank said. “What’s next for Kent?’”

Liquid crystals

Liquid crystals are a state of matter in between a solid and a liquid. According to a journal written by Denis Andrienko, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, liquid crystals possess the fluidity of a liquid, as well as specific optical and magnetic properties of a crystal.  

Researchers use liquid crystals in displays by altering their alignment, which changes their optical properties, said Robin Selinger, professor in the department of physics.

“Molecules in a liquid crystal are not spherical,” Selinger said. “They are either elongated like a rod or flat like a pizza. But either way, they form phases with orientational order.”

Selinger explained that when rod-shaped liquid crystals align in a specific pattern, liquid crystal displays operate using polarized light waves, which are light waves that vibrate in one plane. If the orientation of the polarized light is parallel to the rod axis of the liquid crystals, light will spread. If the orientation is perpendicular to the rod axis of the liquid crystals, light will be blocked. And if the rod axis makes a twist, light will refract and twist with the liquid crystals.


While people typically associate liquid crystals with flat panel displays, they serve many other purposes, chemical physics professor Peter Palffy-Muhoray said.   

“Liquid crystals keep giving us more and more interesting things to try and understand,” Palffy-Muhoray said.

One way they can be used is by turning them into liquid crystal elastomers.

When polymerized, liquid crystals become liquid crystal elastomers, which possess the properties of a liquid crystal and the elasticity of rubber. This material reacts uniquely to changes in its physical environment, taking on new shapes when light shines on it, Palffy-Muhoray said.

“You can make little things which will move along a surface when you shine light on them or make things that will swim on the surface of water when you illuminate them with light,” Palffy-Muhoray said.

Researchers hope to one day use liquid crystal elastomers to transport energy, Palffy-Muhoray said.

In order for electricity to do mechanical work, energy must be transmitted through a wire to a motor. The wire can be thin and short if it transports small amounts of energy. However, if it transports a large sum of energy, such as a street cable, the wire must be long and bulky.

Using light, which can store massive amounts of energy, and liquid crystal elastomers, researchers could eliminate the need for wires, Palffy-Muhoray said.

“The emerging idea is for the realization that light can carry an enormous amount of energy,” Palffy-Muhoray said.

Because liquid crystal elastomers change shape under light, researchers could shine light on them to do mechanical work, Palffy-Muhoray said

Researchers also use liquid crystal polymers in 3D printing, Selinger said. 3D printers print objects in layers, and each layer relies on the layer below it for support. This makes it difficult to print a spiral because the object is not layered the same way, Selinger said

“With liquid crystal polymers,” Selinger said. “You could print something flat on the table that then changes shape under stimulus.

Factors such as a change in temperature can allow a 3D printed object made with liquid crystal polymers to change into a spiral after it has been printed, Selinger said. This area of study is new, and researchers are continuing to develop it, Selinger said

“Finding ways to expand the capabilities of 3D printing through shape transformations driven by temperature, chemical environment or light exposure is a whole brand new area,” Selinger said. 

Selinger expects new research areas to be established once the university hires a new director for the institute. A search committee is in the process of looking for candidates, Selinger said. 

The changes to the institute will ultimately facilitate collaboration between its various research groups, Selinger said.

“That’s what the LCI is really about,” Selinger said. “Take a whole bunch of people with common interests and complementary research skills and have them team up in different ways to accomplish goals that not one of those groups could do alone.”

Paige Bennett is the Sciences reporter. Contact her at [email protected]