Liquid Crystals: A KSU Institution

Jackie Valley

The lines started well before

the release of the highly anticipated

new Apple gadget Saturday.

The lines started well before

the release of the highly anticipated

new Apple gadget Saturday.

By the day’s end, Apple said

it had sold 300,000 iPads.

But before its release, three

graduates of Kent State’s Liquid

Crystal Institute played a key role

as part of Apple’s design team in

the development of the 1.5-pound

tablet device.

“Because they have the technical

knowledge (of liquid-crystal

technology), they can set those

designs with the authority,” said

Phil Bos, associate director of LCI.

“These guys work very closely

with the liquid-crystal display

manufacturers to optimize the

display for Apple’s application.”

Translation for non-science

people: The Kent State graduates

on Apple’s design team helped

determine the resolution of the

display, the thickness of the tablet

and the brightness of colors —

pushing the limits of technology

based on their knowledge of liquid


But what’s a liquid crystal?

Liquid crystals are actually

an intermediate phase of matter

between a solid and a liquid, Bos

said. The cigar-shaped molecules

were first discovered in the 1800s

and are crucial to computer and

television displays because of

their ability to reorient when hit

by a small voltage.

The polarization state of light

changes depending on the molecule’s

orientation, Bos said.

That process yields liquid-crystal

displays, empowering vibrant

screens for flat-screen televisions,

computers, GPS systems and the

new iPad, among other applications.

The science behind those products

emerged from Kent State as

scientists began developing uses

for the cigar-shaped molecules.

Now, the liquid-crystal display

industry rakes in more than $150

billion per year, said Oleg Lavrentovich,

director of LCI.

Liquid crystals’ Kent State roots

In the 1960s, Glenn Brown, a

Kent State chemistry professor,

became interested in the liquidcrystal

field, Bos said. He wrote a

few articles about liquid crystals,

and he tried to attract key scientists

to study them at Kent State.

In 1965 he established the Liquid

Crystal Institute — an academic

situation unique to Kent State.

Bos said after World War II,

most universities studied disciplines,

such as physics or biology.

But LCI combined multiple

disciplines to focus research on a

single topic.

“Because they had that focus,

LCI was able to be and still is the

best in the world,” Bos said. “It’s

not just because we’re so much

smarter. It’s because of the university’s

structure that puts a focus on

a topic rather than a discipline.”

Within a few years of its creation,

LCI developed in huge

strides as the focus shifted from

the link between the structure

of liquid crystals and biological

systems to the business opportunities

associated with liquidcrystal


“At the time, people didn’t

have a clue that in 40 years people

would use liquid crystals routinely,”

Lavrentovich said.

In 1969, James Fergason, one

of LCI’s first associate directors,

patented the twisted nematic cell,

the first liquid-crystal device that

led to huge growth in the industry.

Fergason won a prestigious

Lemelson-MIT $500,000 prize

in 2006 for his discovery, and he

donated $25,000 to LCI.

Fergason also helped establish the first spinoff company of LCI in 1970 called ILIXCO, paving the way for future offshoot companies. ILIXCO, now called LXD Inc., is a manufacturer of liquid-crystal displays.

“Fergason understood that it’s not only (that) you make a discovery,” Lavrentovich said, “you need to make the follow-up steps, such as creating a company that would produce the real products.”

Early uses of liquid-crystal technology included displays for quartz watches and calculators. Now, more than 30 years later, many products in Best Buy stores rely on liquid-crystal technology, he said.

The growth of the industry translated into more research funding at Kent State. The Liquid Crystal Institute generated more than $60 million in outside research funds to Kent State between 1995 and 2010, Lavrentovich said.

The three-story Liquid Crystal and Materials Sciences Building opened in 1996 and acts as the central home for the about 20 faculty members and 35 graduate students studying liquid crystals. Many come from different departments, such as physics, chemistry, biology and chemical physics.

“We are not a traditional science department. We are not a traditional engineering department,” said Qi-Huo Wei, an assistant professor at LCI. “We have both. That’s unique.

“It’s not easy to be such an institution. This is a culture that I think accumulated from a longtime history.”

Emerging liquid-crystal technology

Today, researchers at LCI are looking at other uses for liquid-crystal technology — biological-sensing devices to detect anthrax and E. coli, “smart” greenhouses to adjust for sunlight conditions and even a product similar to the invisibility cloak in the “Harry Potter” series.

“We have very prominent scientists working here,” Lavrentovich said.

Green technology tops the priority list of many researchers, he said, as they try to develop low-energy consuming liquid-crystal devices.

“Their dream is to have a display that would capture the energy of the sun,” he said. “So this is a very powerful concept.”

It’s a concept that could eliminate the use of batteries and allow electronics to run longer on less energy.

“If a unit is requiring a lot of power, it means it costs a lot, but there’s also the inconvenience factor,” said Bos, who is also an LCI professor. “If it has a big battery, it’s heavier and it needs to be replaced often.”

That inconvenience factor is also a driving force behind the creation of electronic paper, an effort to drastically lower the world’s paper consumption.

Bos said the push for electronic paper stems from two main concerns: cost and transportation. A terabyte drive costs about $100 and can hold 1,000 filing cabinets worth of information.

Lavrentovich said the LCI, recently deemed a center of excellence by the state, will continue to explore as many avenues for liquid-crystal technology as possible.

“We’re trying to explore, if not all of them, most of them,” he said.

Contact enterprise reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].