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

  • Hundreds of birds injured by kites on Indian independence day

    Tech & Science CTV News
    NEW DELHI - The annual tradition of flying kites over the Indian capital on Independence Day takes a painful toll on birds that fall victim to their razor-sharp strings. Workers at the Charity Birds Hospital see it happen every year - mostly to pigeons but also to crows, eagles and parrots. Source
  • Neuroscientist who studied Einstein's brain dies at 90

    Tech & Science CTV News
    OAKLAND, Calif. -- A founder of modern neuroscience who studied Einstein's brain has died. The University of California, Berkeley says Marian Cleeves Diamond was 90 when she died July 25 at her home in Oakland. Source
  • Marian Cleeves Diamond, who studied Albert Einstein's brain, dead at 90

    Tech & Science CTV News
    OAKLAND, Calif. -- Marian Cleeves Diamond, a neuroscientist who studied Albert Einstein's brain and was one of the first to show that the brain can improve with enrichment, has died. The University of California, Berkeley, where Diamond was a professor emerita of integrative biology, confirmed Diamond died July 25 at her home in Oakland, California. Source
  • Turkey bones may help trace fate of ancient cliff dwellers

    Tech & Science CTV News
    DENVER -- Researchers say they have found a new clue into the mysterious exodus of ancient cliff-dwelling people from the Mesa Verde area of Colorado more than 700 years ago: DNA from the bones of domesticated turkeys. Source
  • Scientist looking to bats and bees in fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs

    Tech & Science CBC News
    A researcher in Halifax hopes that a new high-tech tool will help discover superbug-fighting antibiotics from an unusual source — bat and honeybee colonies. "[Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are] a major concern for hospitals around the world and certainly in Canada and right now," said Clarissa Sit, assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Mary's University. Source
  • July ranks 2nd for heat globally, hottest recorded on land

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Earth yet again sizzled with unprecedented heat last month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday Earth sweated to its second hottest month since recordkeeping began in 1880. At 61.89 degrees (16.63 Celsius), last month was behind July 2016's all-time record by .09 degrees. Source
  • Science Says: DNA test results may not change health habits

    Tech & Science CBC News
    If you learned your DNA made you more susceptible to getting a disease, wouldn't you work to stay healthy? You'd quit smoking, eat better, ramp up your exercise, or do whatever else it took to improve your odds of avoiding maladies like obesity, diabetes, heart disease or cancer, right? Source
  • Spacewalking cosmonauts release 3-D-printed satellite

    Tech & Science CTV News
    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Spacewalking cosmonauts have set free the world's first satellite made with a 3-D printer. Russians Fyodor Yurchikhin and Sergey Ryazanskiy ventured outside the International Space Station on Thursday. They promptly released five nanosatellites by hand. Source
  • Spacewalking cosmonauts release 3D-printed satellite

    Tech & Science CTV News
    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Spacewalking cosmonauts set free the world's first satellite made almost entirely with a 3D printer on Thursday. In total, Russians Fyodor Yurchikhin and Sergey Ryazanskiy ended up releasing five nanosatellites by hand. Source
  • Ancient species of giant sloth discovered in Mexico

    Tech & Science CTV News
    Mexican scientists said Wednesday they have discovered the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of giant sloth that lived 10,000 years ago and died at the bottom of a sinkhole. The Pleistocene-era remains were found in 2010, but were so deep inside the water-filled sinkhole that researchers were only gradually able to piece together what they were, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said in announcing the find. Source