How carrots inspired the technology behind high smartphone and tablet screens

(Darmstadt, Germany) - This Christmas, as consumers around the world hope Santa will give them a smartphone, TV or tablet computer, few people know that the lowly carrot inspired the liquid crystals at the core of such high-tech gadgets.

See Full Article

And the world's leading supplier of liquid crystals is a German company, the world's oldest chemicals and pharmaceuticals maker, Merck KGaA in the western city of Darmstadt.

Merck claims it produces "more than 60 per cent" of all liquid crystals sold worldwide, far ahead of Japanese rivals JNC and DIC and emerging competitors from China.

"The millions of people who own a smartphone, a flat-screen television or a computer have no idea that these contain liquid crystals," said Horst Stegemeyer, scientist and author of several books on the subject.

"And around 80 per cent of all fundamental research on liquid crystals is still done at Merck", which also pioneered most of the innovations in the field, Stegemeyer told AFP.

The applications for liquid crystals include, say, the security holograms on banknotes, but by far the biggest are the high-definition screens that dominate today's consumer electronics industry.

It was the Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer and the German physicist Otto Lehmann who discovered liquid crystals in 1888 when they were experimenting with the natural substances found in carrots and came across a strange phenomenon: some of the substances appeared to have not just one, but two different melting points.

At the first melting point, the substance melted into a cloudy liquid, and at the second the cloudiness suddenly disappeared, giving way to a clear transparent liquid, a new state of matter that was termed "liquid crystal".

'What to do with it?'

"This was very exciting academically at the time ... but the world didn't know what to do with it," said Mark Verrall, co-head of research and development at Merck.

Reinitzer and Lehmann asked Merck to validate their findings. And Merck began producing the first liquid crystal solutions in 1904.

But without any obvious commercial uses, liquid crystals were gradually all but forgotten. Until, that is, the 1960s, when scientists in the United States started experimenting with their use in screens.

The liquid crystals used in today's consumer electronics are not made from carrots but synthetically produced using a number of chemical products.

In recent years they have become a highly profitable business, thanks to booming demand for them, particular from screenmakers in Asia.

"A lot of people thought there wouldn't be any application" for liquid crystals, said Inese Lowenstein, head of display materials at Merck.

They were used in pocket calculators and digital watches in the 1970s and then in Nintendo Game Boy consoles later on, but remained niche products and far from lucrative.

In one of Merck's official publications, former scientists told of the difficulties they encountered in securing funding for research into liquid crystals.

'LC Mafia'

At the time, the handful of scientists working on research into liquid crystals were dubbed the "LC mafia" who felt as if they engaged in some sort of "bootleg topic, which initially had to be run under the counter," said one employee.

It was perhaps Merck's atypical shareholder structure that made possible the luxury of conducting such research.

The Merck family still holds around 70 per cent of the group's capital and "as a family-owned company, they could do want they wanted," said Florian Cespedes, analyst at Societe Generale.

At the start of the 21st century, where cathode ray tube television sets died out to be replaced by flat screens, the company's bet started to finally pay off.

All the more so with the arrival of smartphones and tablets and the trend towards ever larger screens.

Merck's "performance materials" division, dominated by the liquid crystals business, accounts for around one fifth of group sales and a quarter of its profits.

Its strength helps to make up for the current weaknesses in the pharmaceuticals division, still Merck's core business, but which has failed to produce a major new blockbuster drug in more than 10 years.

And the profits are used to finance research in another fast-growing screen technology, OLED or organic light-emitting diode, which is currently used only in very high-end TV sets.

Merck "cannot afford to lose any ground" in this area, said Lowenstein.

In 2017, the first glass panes will be produced that can filter light using liquid crystals. But scientists insist the technology will not stop there.

"In five to 10 years, you're going to watch your holographic TV and wonder how anybody could put up with their flat screen TV," said R&D chief Verrall.



Advertisements

Latest Tech & Science News

  • U.S. lawmakers vote to allow internet providers to sell customers' browsing data

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- The House voted Tuesday to block online privacy regulations issued during the final months of the Obama administration, a first step toward allowing internet providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to sell the browsing habits of their customers. Source
  • Supermassive black holes give birth to stars, astronomers discover

    Tech & Science CBC News
    A team of astrophysicists has discovered that supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies aren't just destroyers of stars, but can also be their creators. Stellar black holes form from the collapse of a large star. Source
  • Fake toons: Kids falling prey to adult parodies of popular children's shows

    Tech & Science CTV News
    YouTube has a fake toons problem. Parent groups are sounding the alarm after thousands of seemingly kid-friendly YouTube videos were found to contain violent and sexual content, in cartoons made to look like shows such as "Peppa Pig" and "Doc McStuffins. Source
  • Carleton University students, staff urged to change passwords after key-logging devices found

    Tech & Science CTV News
    OTTAWA -- Carleton University is urging caution among staff and students after discovering potential hacking tools on a handful of classroom computers. The university says it discovered USB key-logging devices on six classroom computers across three university buildings. Source
  • Thai jungle seen as breeding ground for Indochinese tigers

    Tech & Science CTV News
    BANGKOK -- Conservationists say they have evidence that the critically endangered Indochinese tiger is breeding in a Thai jungle, giving hope for the survival of an animal whose total population may be less than 300. Source
  • Apple iOS update creates instant storage space

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Time to load up on HD movies and games. Apple device owners may find they suddenly have a lot more storage space for music, videos, photos and apps, thanks to an iOS update that improves the way data is processed and stored on all Apple devices. Source
  • Trump issues executive order rolling back Obama climate change policies

    Tech & Science CBC News
    President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Tuesday aimed at moving forward on his campaign pledge to unravel former President Barack Obama's plan to curb global warming. The order will suspend, rescind or flag for review more than a half-dozen measures in an effort to boost domestic energy production in the form of fossil fuels. Source
  • Trump to issue executive order rolling back Obama climate change policies

    Tech & Science CBC News
    President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Tuesday aimed at moving forward on his campaign pledge to unravel former President Barack Obama's plan to curb global warming. The order will suspend, rescind or flag for review more than a half-dozen measures in an effort to boost domestic energy production in the form of fossil fuels. Source
  • 'It's devastating': Documentary reveals 'streams' of water pollution from jean industry

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Those jeans you pull on before running out to the corner store were produced by one of the most toxic industries on the planet, according to a new documentary that explores how clothing manufacturers are poisoning the world's water supply. Source
  • Got camera? Facebook adds more Snapchat-like features

    Tech & Science CTV News
    NEW YORK -- Facebook is adding more Snapchat-like features to its app. The company says it wants to let people's cameras "do the talking" as more people are posting photos and videos instead of blocks of text. Source