Liquid crystals have good optical properties (transparency,
homogeneity, birefringence, etc.). They can be easily included in microdevices and fibres, and are low cost components.
Moreover, they can be mixed with other substances in order to obtain new composite materials having completely different and very interesting optical, electro-optical, thermal and
mechanical properties. Finally, they are sensitive to external fields, including optical fields, so they can be used as active materials in optical and electro-optical devices.
The main limitations of liquid crystals in their use for
optical and electro-optical devices are their response time and optical quality. Response time is an intrinsic limitation of liquid crystalline materials, so that, at present, it seems
impossible to make electro-optical devices having an overall response time less than few microseconds. It should be
stressed, however, that for a great number of practical
applications e-o devices with time responses less than 1 ms are considered fast. In these cases, the use of liquid crystals may present great advantages, provided the problem of optical quality is seriously addressed. It is thought that high grade LC optical devices can be developed if appropriate technologies are adopted. Besides TV LC displays, a number of optical and electro-optical LC devices are already commercialised,
particularly by SMEs outside the EU. The market is growing
rapidly, but at the same time end users are stepping up
requested features and performances of phototonic devices.
Moreover, new LC composites and new optical and electro-optical effects based on these materials have been discovered and
studied in the last years which are likely to have a
significant impact in the industrial sector of Photonics. USA and Japan are investing heavily on this research. This
competition can be an exciting and fruitful challenge for EU research groups and industries, especially SMEs.
Fundamental and applied research in this field is widely
diffused and European groups have a primary role within it. A first coordination of research activities related to optical properties of LC materials has been realised in the framework of a general EU HCM Network, the LC-MACRONET (1993-96). Among the most important results of the later Network has been the ability of different EU groups to select a number of research activities open to industrial applications and to focus their attention on them. Thus, the next logical step is to involve industry more strictly, particularly SMEs interested in LC
The main goal of the proposed Thematic Network is to address the specific problems which must be solved in order to enlarge the range of applications of LC materials in the field of
Microdevices for Communication Technology, Optical Imaging and Processing, Light Shutters and Modulators, Optical Memories, and Large Area Optical Devices. The final expected yield of the proposed Network is a transfer of new scientific results to the industrial partners, useful for the development of new
advanced technology commercial products.
EUROPEAN DIMENSION AND PARTNERSHIP
The nature of this network implies that direct social and
environmental benefits are limited. However, it contributes to the development of products with a high technological content, which need low cost raw materials and are characterised by low power consumption. Realistically, LC based photonic devices go in the direction of increasing device performances while
reducing its costs and power consumption, thus increasing
Another interesting aspect of PHOTONET regards regional
cohesion requested by the Commission. The network leads to the creation of a European scientific and technological pole made by research groups and by interested endorsers. These
organisations has sufficient critical mass to be competitive on a world-wide scale and moreover the pole is a good equilibrium between best level European research groups and European
companies active in R&D. The industrial participation is
highly qualified and very well balanced on the one hand among chemical, electro-optic, and systems companies, and on the
other hand among large companies and SMEs. Six EU countries are represented among academic partners and four EU countries among the industrial ones. Three partners are from objective one regions, i.e. unfavourable regions.
By far the largest industrial LC applications are in the field of TV displays and a number of big companies are involved with their production and commercialisation. On the other hand, an increasing number of passive and active devices based on the optical and electro-optical properties of LC have been
commercialised in recent years by some SMEs in the US, Japan, and Europe.
The performances of these devices are continuously changing, requiring a continuous interaction between research and
production groups. Better performances, new materials, and
completely new devices are proposed every year. In addition, the commercial exploitation in the near future of LC based
integrated optical devices for Communication Technology becomes more and more probable. LC based devices are at the moment a small fraction of the overall optical and electro-optical
component market which involves a relatively small number of SMEs in technologically advanced countries, but its growth rate is very high and it could explode when LC integrated optical devices will reach commercialisation. To achieve this
objective, fundamental research in Europe must be brought
closer to the actual problems faced by these SMEs. It should be noted that most of the SMEs active in this field are in the US, some of them in Japan and some in Europe.
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