Four NSF Grants Bring $1.5 Million for Research to Kent State | Kent State University

Four NSF Grants Bring $1.5 Million for Research to Kent State

Liquid crystal studies will fuel new technologies

Four research groups at Kent State University have been awarded more than $1.5 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for projects that will advance basic knowledge of liquid crystals and further their development in new materials and technologies, such as advanced displays, detection of chemical warfare agents and biomedical sensors.

The funding supports research in an area that Kent State is well known for -- liquid crystals -- that has led to major technological developments, such as TV and mobile device liquid crystal displays (LCDs). The new projects will further a fundamental understanding of liquid crystals that could lead to their use in new advanced materials for medicine, sensing devices and communications.

Targeting Toxic Agents

Research led at Kent State by Robert J. Twieg, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was awarded $500,000 as part of a collaborative project with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The total grant to both institutions is $1.5 million.

The research is part of the Materials Genome Initiative, a national effort launched in 2011 to discover and speed the design of new advanced materials. To date, the federal government has invested more than $250 million in research and development under the initiative.

The research is designed to accelerate the development of chemically responsive liquid crystal systems that are capable of “sensitive and selective detection” of a range of gases, the researchers reported. This could eventually lead to new classes of sensors useful in environmental monitoring, in detecting toxic industrial chemicals or chemical warfare agents, and in medical applications. Twieg’s group’s role in the interdisciplinary research is in the area of synthetic organic chemistry.

Past work in identifying and optimizing the metal ions and liquid crystals needed to detect a single class of nerve agents took 10 years, the researchers reported in their proposal to the NSF. They proposed a “fresh and more robust approach” that would be timely and cost-effective.

Faster, Higher Contrast LCDs

A research group of four investigators led by Satyendra Kumar, Ph.D., professor of physics at Kent State, was awarded $385,000 by the NSF. Kumar’s research group is partnering with researchers in Ireland and Northern Ireland who were awarded similar funding by their government research agencies. The project, totaling $1.4 million for all, is part of the NSF’s U.S. Ireland R & D Partnership Program. The scientists are studying relatively new types of liquid crystals that will provide a thousand times faster switching and higher contrast than current LCDs.

The research team will investigate de Vries smectic liquid crystals, which were discovered in 1979 at Kent State. They could provide faster electro-optical switching than the nematic liquid crystals that are now used in displays such as watches, flat-screen TVs, computer displays, mobile phones and electronic devices. This fundamental research involves synthesis of new de Vries compounds with ferroelectric properties, a study of their organization, and building prototypes of new devices to test their stability and suitability for use in applications, such as advanced displays, communications devices and sensors.

“We are very pleased to receive this award from the NSF to work on this exciting international project, especially when research funding is becoming very difficult to secure,” said Kumar, whose group has been conducting research for several years on the de Vries materials and who gave a plenary lecture on the topic at the 25th International Liquid Crystal Conference at Trinity College in Dublin in July.

Doing the Math

Research led by Oleg Lavrentovich, Ph.D., Trustees Research Professor of Chemical Physics in Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute, will receive $347,000 as part of a collaborative project among four universities to mathematically describe the behavior of liquid crystals in suspensions. The project is led by mathematicians at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and includes experimental contributions by Lavrentovich. Mathematicians and scientists from Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Akron are also involved.

The work is designed to advance theory but also to develop “optimal strategies” for designing new types of liquid crystals and systems containing liquid crystals.  Among these are lyotropic (water-based) liquid crystals that are biologically compatible and can be used to detect and control bacteria, and tiny, sub-micrometer particles (colloids) placed in a liquid crystal and showing new types of motion. The knowledge gained could lead to applications far beyond liquid crystal displays (LCDs) to uses such as biosensing of harmful microbes or sorting cancer cells and biomolecules.

Origami at the Atomic Level

Researchers led by Qihuo Wei, Ph.D, associate professor, and Robin Selinger, Ph.D., professor of chemical physics, both members of the Liquid Crystals Institute, were awarded $300,000 to study how to make 3D microstructures out of shape-changing liquid crystal polymers that spontaneously fold. This “auto-origami,” as it is known, potentially could be programmed by controlling the liquid crystal’s molecular orientation. The research will seek a basic understanding of the technology needed to do this at the micrometer scale (one micron is one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair) and to design molecular patterns that could be used in manufacturing 3D microstructures.  

Selinger’s contributions will be theoretical and Wei’s experimental. Wei is preparing a patent application for his new technique. Ultimately, the technology could be applied to biomedical devices, such as drug carriers and sensors.

All three of the research projects offer opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to participate. All of the researchers are faculty members in departments within Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences.

For more information about research at Kent State, visit

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Headshots of Kent State researchers are available by request.

Media Contacts:
Cindy Weiss,, 330-672-0731
Bob Burford,, 330-672-8516


POSTED: Monday, August 25, 2014 - 4:34pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, December 2, 2014 - 4:43pm
Cindy Weiss