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Three-dimensional control of the helical axis of a chiral nematic liquid crystal by light


Chiral nematic liquid crystals—otherwise referred to as cholesteric liquid crystals (CLCs)—are self-organized helical superstructures that find practical application in, for example, thermography1, reflective displays2, tuneable colour filters3,4 and mirrorless lasing5,6. Dynamic, remote and three-dimensional control over the helical axis of CLCs is desirable, but challenging7,8. For example, the orientation of the helical axis relative to the substrate can be changed from perpendicular to parallel by applying an alternating-current electric field9, by changing the anchoring conditions of the substrate, or by altering the topography of the substrate’s surface10,11,12,13,14,15,16; separately, in-plane rotation of the helical axis parallel to the substrate can be driven by a direct-current field17,18,19. Here we report three-dimensional manipulation of the helical axis of a CLC, together with inversion of its handedness, achieved solely with a light stimulus. We use this technique to carry out light-activated, wide-area, reversible two-dimensional beam steering—previously accomplished using complex integrated systems20 and optical phased arrays21. During the three-dimensional manipulation by light, the helical axis undergoes, in sequence, a reversible transition from perpendicular to parallel, followed by in-plane rotation on the substrate surface. Such reversible manipulation depends on experimental parameters such as cell thickness, surface anchoring condition, and pitch length. Because there is no thermal relaxation, the system can be driven either forwards or backwards from any light-activated intermediate state. We also describe reversible photocontrol between a two-dimensional diffraction state, a one-dimensional diffraction state and a diffraction ‘off’ state in a bilayer cell.

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Figure 1: Light-induced three-dimensional control over the helical axis of a CLC.
Figure 2: Light-controllable two-dimensional beam steering for spectrum scanning.
Figure 3: Light-induced diffraction dimensionality transformation of a bilayer CLC sample.
Figure 4: Helical arrangements of CLCs in a bilayer cell upon UV irradiation.


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Q.L. acknowledges support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR; grant no. FA9950-09-1-0193) and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Z.Z. acknowledges receipt of a Scholarship supported by the China Scholarship Council. T.J.B. acknowledges support from the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and the AFOSR.

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Authors and Affiliations



Q.L. and T.J.B. designed the research; Z.Z. carried out the experiments; Y.L. synthesized the chiral dopant; Q.L., Z.Z. and H.K.B. prepared the manuscript; Z.Z, Y.L., H.K.B., L.W., T.J.B. and Q.L. interpreted the results and contributed to manuscript editing.

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Correspondence to Quan Li.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Zheng, Zg., Li, Y., Bisoyi, H. et al. Three-dimensional control of the helical axis of a chiral nematic liquid crystal by light. Nature 531, 352–356 (2016).

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