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George Gray: Liquid Perfection

George Gray: Liquid Perfection

In modern society, there must be very few whose lives have not been affected by the advent of liquid crystal technology.

We are surrounded by digital displays on our watches, clocks, calculators, televisions, CD and DVD players. The list goes on and on. But last time you glanced at one of those displays, did you take the time to thank Hull and Professor George Gray?

In a solid, molecules always maintain their orientation and stay in the same position with respect to one another. The molecules in liquids are just the opposite: they can change their orientation and move anywhere in the liquid. But there are some substances that can exist in an odd state, not quite solid, not quite liquid. When they are in this state their molecules tend to maintain their orientation like the molecules in a solid, but also move around to different positions like the molecules in a liquid. This means that liquid crystals are neither a solid nor a liquid, hence their seemingly contradictory name.

An LCD displayLiquid crystals were discovered as early as 1888 but their structure and properties were first described by Charles Mauguin in 1911. Over in Hull, Sir Brynmor Jones initiated research in the field of liquid crystals in the 1930s. It was only when he became head of the Department of Chemistry that responsibility for this research passed to George Gray, which was to be a pivotal decision.

After the invention of the twisted nematic liquid crystal display in 1972, liquid crystal research suddenly became fashionable. Twisted nematic liquid crystals are naturally twisted. Applying an electric current to these liquid crystals will untwist them to varying degrees, depending on the current’s voltage. Their application however, proved impractical because of a lack of photo-chemically and chemically stable nematic materials that existed in the liquid-crystalline state at room temperature.

In 1973, George Gray changed all that. Alongside Ken Harrison and the Ministry of Defence, he developed cyano-biphenyl liquid crystals, which were found to possess stable nematic phases (meaning they have no spacial ordering of the molecules) at, or close to, room temperature. His invention became an overnight success and the marketplace was suddenly flooded with electronic devices containing small area liquid crystal displays (LCD’s), that for the most part contained Hull materials. LCD’s use these liquid crystals because they react predictably to electric current in such a way that controls the passage of light. The research group was awarded The Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement in 1979.

George Gray went on to be awarded the Fellowship of The Royal Society of Chemistry (FRS), the Fellowship of The Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), honoured with a CBE and receive the Kyoto Laureate of 1995. He also remains an Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull.

LED’s vs. LCD’s

LCD - Liquid Crystal Display - favoured display systems because they are thin, light and require very little power.

LED - Light Emitting Diode - an electronic device that lights up when electricity is passed through it. They are good for displaying images because they can be relatively small and they do not burn out. However, they require more power than LCD’s.

Your Say

I note with interest that no mention is made of the efforts of BDH Chemicals (as they were known in those days) to develop manufacturing methods and commercialise Cyano biphenyl liquid crystals in close co-operation with Hull University (and Dr Gray in particular) and the the RSRE Malvern. Without the dedicated R& D team headed by Dr Ben Sturgeon - the commericialisation of liquid crystals would have been severely delayed, and we might not now be enjoying the benefits of large panel LCD screens as we do. BDH did also get a Queens award for Technological achievement - and believe that their part in the Liquid Crystal story should not go unsung as appears so often to be the case.
Gary Gardner

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20 Jul 2017
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