10 Mar 2016

Made in Hull: LCD

Did you know that the screen on your phone relies on some brilliant tech, developed in Hull?

We’re all about arts and culture here at Hull 2017, but digital technology gets us pretty excited too. That’s why the story of LCD screens (and their amazing link to Hull) is one we’ve been really looking forward to telling.

Chances are, you’ll be reading this article on some kind of LCD screen. Whether that’s your phone, a tablet or a computer, the device you’re looking at probably has liquid crystals inside it. Liquid crystal displays (or LCDs) make use of a weird phenomenon, that scientists at the University of Hull managed to figure out in the 1970s and turn into the tech we use today.

Professor George Gray was the brains behind the operation. A pioneering Professor of Organic Chemistry, Gray led the team at the University of Hull who made a major breakthrough into liquid crystals, paving the way for LCD. His research built on the work of Otto Lehmann, a German physicist with a wonderful beard. Lehmann (along with his friend Friedrich Reinitzer) accidentally stumbled on liquid crystals in the late 1800s. They discovered the strange phenomenon where substances could have two melting points, while somehow acting like a liquid but containing lots of tiny, solid crystals.

Over the next 50 years, scientists continued to experiment with liquid crystals and found more weird properties. They realised that they could be manipulated and changed with an electric field, changing position depending on the current passed through it. They also found that the crystals were very effective at polarising light passed through them, but realised that they were pretty unstable, only working at really high temperatures. It wasn’t until 1973, when George Gray published his ground-breaking research paper New Family of Nematic Liquid Crystals for Displays (snappy title, I know) that liquid crystals really took off. Gray figured out a way to make the crystals function at room temperature, making them practical to use in screens like the ones we use now.

This discovery had a massive impact, opening up the commercial development of LCD technology and providing the basis for generations of televisions, computer monitors and other displays. This likely had a huge affect on the environmental impact of TVs too, as the industry moved from producing power-hungry TVs with cathode ray tubes towards smarter, more energy efficient flat screen LCDs.

Gray’s discovery won him the Kyoto prize for Advanced Technology, and was named as one of Eureka UK’s 100 university discoveries that changed the world. The University of Hull continue to be leaders in liquid crystal research, and celebrated the 40th anniversary of Gray’s awesome discovery in 2013.

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