Scientists and engineers are able to use liquid crystals in a variety of applications because external perturbation can cause significant changes in the macroscopic properties of the liquid crystal system. Both electric and magnetic fields can be used to induce these changes. The magnitude of the fields, as well as the speed at which the molecules align are important characteristics industry deals with. Finally, special surface treatments can be used in liquid crystal devices to force specific orientations of the director.
The response of liquid crystal molecules to an electric field is the major characteristic utilized in industrial applications. The ability of the director to align along an external field is caused by the electric nature of the molecules. Permanent electric dipoles result when one end of a molecule has a net positive charge while the other end has a net negative charge. When an external electric field is applied to the liquid crystal, the dipole molecules tend to orient themselves along the direction of the field. In the following diagram, the black arrows represent the electric field vector and the red arrows show the electric force on the molecule.
Even if a molecule does not form a permanent dipole, it can still be influenced by an electric field. In some cases, the field produces slight re-arrangement of electrons and protons in molecules such that an induced electric dipole results. While not as strong as permanent dipoles, orientation with the external field still occurs.
The effects of magnetic fields on liquid crystal molecules are analogous to electric fields. Because magnetic fields are generated by moving electric charges, permanent magnetic dipoles are produced by electrons moving about atoms. When a magnetic field is applied, the molecules will tend to align with or against the field. (See Chandrasekhar, 1992 for further discussion)
In the absence of an external field, the director of a liquid crystal is free to point in any direction. It is possible, however, to force the director to point in a specific direction by introducing an outside agent to the system. For example, when a thin polymer coating (usually a polyimide) is spread on a glass substrate and rubbed in a single direction with a cloth, it is observed that liquid crystal molecules in contact with that surface align with the rubbing direction. The currently accepted mechanism for this is believed to be an epitaxial growth of the liquid crystal layers on the partially aligned polymer chains in the near surface layers of the polyimide.
The competition between orientation produced by surface anchoring and by electric field effects is often exploited in liquid crystal devices. Consider the case in which liquid crystal molecules are aligned parallel to the surface and an electric field is applied perpendicular to the cell as in the following diagram. At first, as the electric field increases in magnitude, no change in alignment occurs. However at a threshold magnitude of electric field, deformation occurs. Deformation occurs where the director changes its orientation from one molecule to the next. The occurrence of such a change from an aligned to a deformed state is called a Freedericksz transition and can also be produced by the application of a magnetic field of sufficient strength.
The Freedericksz transition is fundamental to the operation of many liquid crystal displays because the director orientation (and thus the properties) can be controlled easily by the application of a field. Refer to the Applications section for more information about liquid crystals used in displays.