Liquid crystals technology’s future

Research led by scientists from the University of Luxembourg has shown the potential of liquid crystal shells as enabling material for a vast array of future applications, ranging from autonomous driving to anti-counterfeiting technology.

Liquid crystals, already widely used in flat-screen TVs, are materials that are in a state between solid and liquid. Professor Jan Lagerwall and his team at the physics and materials Science Research Unit (PHYMS) at the University of Luxembourg have been investigating the unique mechanical and optical properties of microscopic shells that are produced of liquid crystal for several years.

Liquid crystal shells, only fractions of a millimetre in size so they can easily be applied to surfaces, have several unique properties that could be utilized in engineering. As they reflect light highly selectively, they can be arranged into patterns that are readable for machines, akin to a QR code, adding coded information to objects.

‘These patterns could be used to guide autonomous vehicles or to instruct robots when handling workpieces in a factory. This could become important especially in indoors applications where GPS devices don’t work,’ Jan explained.

The shells can be manufactured to reflect only certain wavelengths of light, such as infrared, that would be invisible to the human eye. As the liquid crystal shells reflect light ‘omnidirectionally’ meaning that beholders see the same pattern regardless of their position and viewing angle, the patterns can even be read by moving objects.

Together with computers to interpret these changes, the shells could be used as sensors, for example as pressure sensors in the fingertips of robots enabling tactile feeling which is currently hard to achieve in robotic engineering.

Finally, liquid crystal shells could be used to prevent counterfeiting. The micropatterns that emerge when the shells are brought together are unique and impossible to copy. These unclonable patterns could be used to create uncopiable identifiers that can be attached to valuable objects, such as art works or expensive pharmaceuticals.