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News Release 12-085

Liquid Crystal Design

Engineers develop technique to craft new materials using liquid crystals as structural guides

Illustration showing computational models of droplets with liquid crystals, water and surfactants.

A creative illustration depicting data from computational models of nanometer-scale droplets.

May 2, 2012

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Liquid crystals, ubiquitous in cell-phone screens and computer monitors, were known to science long before engineers realized their utility in displays and other technologies. Now, an international team of researchers has discovered how to use liquid crystals as scaffolding to build novel materials with undiscovered properties.

Reporting their findings in the journal Nature on May 3, the researchers describe a sophisticated computational model for determining how liquid crystals behave within the confines of nanometer-scale droplets containing molecules that lower the surface tensions of liquids, called surfactants.

The researchers, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison engineer Juan de Pablo, show that as the droplets cool, the liquid crystals confine the surfactant molecules, organizing them into discrete structures.

As the researchers adjusted the model's parameters, such as droplet size or surfactant concentration, the simulation revealed that it is possible to use the technique to guide self-assembled structures with a wide range of properties and applications.

For example, the researchers suggest the technique could be used to construct materials from DNA building blocks, allowing unique detectors for biological materials and toxins.

"The researchers have taken a new and exciting approach to the study of liquid crystals, which will have impact in several scientific and technical arenas," adds Mary Galvin, National Science Foundation (NSF) program director for Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers.

NSF supported the research through the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center on Nanostructured Interfaces, an NSF Center of Excellence for Materials Research and Innovation.

For more information, read the full University of Wisconsin-Madison press release.


Media Contacts
Joshua A. Chamot, NSF, (703) 292-7730, email:
Terry Devitt, Univeristy iof Wisconsin - Madison, (608) 262-8282, email:

Program Contacts
Mary E. Galvin, NSF, (703) 292-8562, email:

Principal Investigators
Juan de Pablo, University of Wisconsin - Madison, (608) 262-7727, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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