posted 21 June 2010
These images show the amazing textures of different liquid crystal phases viewed through a polarized light optical microscope (magnification 40x)
Torsten Hegmann, Chemistry, has been awarded one of only 125 Discovery Accelerator Supplements (DAS) available across the country for his project: Modulating the Properties of Liquid Crystals Using Nanoparticles as Dopants. The $120K over three years is part of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) DAS Program. Researchers do not apply for the award; instead, NSERC awards the funds to a small group of researchers who show strong potential to become international leaders in their areas of research. Hegmann has just become one of that select group.
What is his research about? We are all familiar with liquid crystal displays (LCDs) used in mobile phones, computer screens and super flat TVs. In this highly-competitive sector, improving characteristics such as lower operating voltages, faster switching, higher contrast or self-illumination in the final display are highly sought-after qualities. In the new iphone 4, for example, the new Retina display boasts the “highest-resolution phone screen ever”. Creating devices with sharper images that use less power (and prolong battery life), are key competitive factors in the industry.
Hegmann’s group is working on a promising class of materials, called nanoscale particles, which have enormous potential for improving LCD characteristics. In particular, they are interested in creating designer nanoparticles with characteristics specific to required applications.
Why is this important? The LCD in your desk top computer only needs to operate at room temperature, but your cell phone, for example, needs to operate both at -30 or +40 depending on whether you are in Winnipeg in the winter or in Perth, Australia in the summer.
Nanoparticles also have the potential to act as the alignment layer in LCDs, thereby replacing an expensive process in their production. Reduced production costs ultimately reduce the costs to the consumer, making many of the high-end devices more affordable: another driving force in the industry.
Although LCD displays are the most common use of the nanoparticle technology, there are other wide-ranging applications. On the energy front, Hegmann, along with fellow chemist Michael Freund, are involved in an international collaboration to design a photosynthetic system that uses water to create hydrogen as a clean and green fuel source.
On the medical front, the Hegmann group is working on the development of nanoparticles that can pass through the blood brain barrier to deliver drugs directly to areas of the brain that need them – a problem that plagues most hydrophilic drugs that are transported through the blood stream. This medical application could revolutionize the treatment for brain tumor or stroke patients.
Hegmann’s award is targeted to the training of graduate students or post-doctoral fellows, and in this area, there has already been a success story. Hegmann’s former Ph.D. student Hao Qi, (a University of Manitoba Distinguished Thesis Award winner), has just won the prestigious Glenn H. Brown Award from the International Liquid Crystal Society. Only four of these awards are granted every two years for the best Ph.D. thesis worldwide in the field.Thanks to the DAS award, Hegmann now has the opportunity to train more students in his lab in this rapidly growing and expanding field.