Researchers show how to make ‘microcomputers’ from liquid crystals

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Liquid crystals are used in new technologies, and they are of great interest to engineering researchers. Previously, a team from the University of Chicago managed to control the “topological defects” of these types of crystals by means of directed light, and we now know that they can be used for boolean calculations. Useful application in soft robotics, but also in synthetic biology.

A liquid crystal is not completely solid or liquid, it is a state of matter that has the properties of a conventional liquid and an amorphous solid. These materials have always attracted the attention of materials specialists because they form the basis of new technologies. They are found especially in LCD screens.

Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering have found an additional use for them: performing Boolean operations, opening the way to a new way to perform calculations. Thus, liquid crystals can be used as small “computers” and in soft robotics.

We’ve shown that the basic elements of a circuit – gates, amplifiers and conductors – can be created with liquid crystals, which means we should be able to assemble them for more complex operations. details in a press release Professor Juan de Pablo, a researcher in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study. It’s not often that we get to see a new way of doing computing, and that’s a really exciting step in the field of active substances. “.

Control of topological defects with directed light

Liquid crystals flow like a liquid, but their molecular structure is similar to a crystal; So much so that the network formed by the molecules is most often arranged. However, a structure can also be “in motion” as in a fluid, and perturbation points are called “topological defects”. They allow liquid crystals to flow, move, and acquire optical properties (such as changing color in monitors).

It is not new that defects in molecular structures are the basis for interesting applications, as is the case with imperfect diamonds for the quantum internet. In the case that interests us here, Professor Rui Zhang, from the Department of Physics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, explains that “topological defects have many properties of the electrons in the circuit.” Thus they can be used to convey information, but it is still necessary to be able to control their behaviour. ” Usually, if you look under a microscope at an experiment with an active liquid crystal, you will see a complete mess: imperfections moving in all directions. DePablo says.

Last year, a team – which included the two professors – succeeded in controlling the movement of topological defects in liquid crystals. By using a beam of light directed at specific areas, they were able to direct the defects to those areas.

Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering explain how liquid crystals can be used to perform calculations using techniques such as those described above, where the red region is activated by light. © Rui Zhang et al. 2022

Useful applications in soft robotics and synthetic biology

In the new study, researchers show through simulations that the “light technology” enables defects to perform calculations, like a computer. But the researchers believe that liquid crystals will be used more often in soft robotics. As a reminder, the body of soft robots is made of flexible materials, which allows them to perform other operations compared to rigid robots. Also, these soft robots can perform calculations.

Topological defects in liquid crystals can also be used to move objects from one place to another within small devices. ” For example, perhaps one could perform functions within an artificial cell Zhang says. Scientists must now confirm the findings from the experiments.

Source: Science Advances

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