What do carrots and smartphones have in common?
A lot, in fact. Carrots first inspired the liquid crystals that are used in smartphones, tablets and TV screens.
Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer first discovered liquid crystals in 1888 while experimenting with natural substances found in carrots. He came across something strange: the substances had two different melting points. The first melting point, 293.9 degrees Fahrenheit (145.5 degrees Celsius), resulted in the substance melting into a cloudy liquid, whereas the second, 353.3 degrees Fahrenheit (178.5 degrees Celsius), gave way to a clear and transparent liquid. In order to understand what he was seeing, he sought assistance from German physicist Otto Lehmann. Together they came up with the first liquid crystals.
At the time, many scientists were unconvinced. They thought that there could not be a state between liquid and solid. Maybe this was due to impurities, or it was simply a mix of liquid and solid components.
The world's leading supplier of liquid crystals, who claims they produce 60 percent of liquid crystals sold worldwide, is a German company, Merck KGaA. "A lot of people thought there wouldn't be any application" for liquid crystals, said Inese Lowenstein, their head of display materials.
These days, liquid crystals aren’t actually made with carrots, but they would not exist if not for those researchers and their vegetable experimenting. Applications for liquid crystals don’t stop at liquid crystal display (LCD) screens — they are also used for calculators, holograms on banknotes, digital watches, and some thermometers.
Liquid Crystal molecules are usually shaped like rods or plates that align collectively in a certain direction, and their order can be controlled using mechanical, magnetic, or electric forces.
"In five to 10 years, you're going to watch your holographic TV and wonder how anybody could put up with their flat screen TV," said R&D chief Verrall. What kind of vegetables will that require?