Liquid Crystals, Liquid Crystal Devices, Tunable devices, Adaptive Optics, Fast-response, Polymers


Liquid crystal (LC)-based adaptive optics are important for information processing, optical interconnections, photonics, integrated optics, and optical communications due to their tunable optical properties. In this dissertation, we describe novel liquid crystal photonic devices and their fabrication methods. The devices presented include inhomogeneous polymer-dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC), polymer network liquid crystals (PNLC) and phase-separated composite film (PSCOF). Liquid crystal/polymer composites could exist in different forms depending on the fabrication conditions. In Chap. 3, we demonstrate a novel nanoscale PDLC device that has inhomogeneous droplet size distribution. In such a PDLC, the inhomogeneous droplet size distribution is obtained by exposing the LC/monomer with a non-uniform ultraviolet (UV) light. An electrically tunable-efficiency Fresnel lens is devised for the first time using nanoscale PDLC. The tunable Fresnel lens is very desirable to eliminate the need of external spatial light modulator. Different gradient profiles are obtained by using different photomasks. The nanoscale LC droplets are randomly distributed within the polymer matrix, so that the devices are polarization independent and exhibit a fast response time. Because of the small droplet sizes, the operating voltage is higher than 100 Vrms. To lower the driving voltage, in Chap. 2 and Chap. 3, we have investigated a polymer-network liquid crystal (PNLC) using a rod-like monomer structure. Since the monomer concentration is only about 5%, the operating voltage is below 10 Vrms. The PNLC devices are polarization dependent. To overcome this shortcoming, stacking two cells with orthogonal alignment directions is a possibility. In Chap. 3, another approach to lower the operating voltage is to use phase-separated composite film (PSCOF) where the LC and polymer are separated completely to form two layers. Without multi-domain formed in the LC cell, PSCOF is free from light scattering. Using PNLC and PSCOF, we also demonstrated LC blazed grating and Fresnel lens. The diffraction efficiency of these devices is continuously controlled by the electric field. Besides Fresnel lens, another critical need for imaging and display is to develop a system with continuously tunable focal length. A conventional zooming system controls the lens distance by mechanical motion along the optical axis. This mechanical zooming system is bulky and power hungry. To overcome the bulkiness, in Chap. 4 we developed an electrically tunable-focus flat LC spherical lens which consists of a spherical electrode imbedded in the top flat substrates while a planar electrode on the bottom substrate. The electric field from the spherical and planar electrodes induces a centrosymmetric gradient refractive index distribution within the LC layer which, in turn, causes the focusing effect. The focal length is tunable by the applied voltage. A tunable range from 0.6 m to infinity is achieved. Microlens array is an attractive device for optical communications and projection displays. In Chap. 5, we describe a LC microlens array whose focal length can be switched from positive to negative or vise versa by the applied voltage. The top spherical electrode glass substrate is flattened with a polymer layer. The top convex substrate and LC layer work together like a zoom lens. By tuning the refractive index profile of the LC layer, the focal length of the microlens array can be switched from positive to negative or vise versa. The tunable LC microlens array would be a great replacement of a conventional microlens array which can be moved by mechanical elements. The fast response time feature of our LC microlens array will be very helpful in developing 3-D animated images. A special feature for LC/polymer composites is light scattering. The concept is analogous to the light scattering of clouds which consist of water droplets. In Chap. 6, we demonstrate polymer network liquid crystals for switchable polarizers and optical shutters. The PNLC can present anisotropic or isotropic light scattering behavior depending on the fabrication methods. The use of dual-frequency liquid crystal and special driving scheme leads to a sub-millisecond response time. The applications for display, light shutters, and switchable windows are emphasized. Although polymer networks help to reduce liquid crystal response time, they tend to scatter light. In Chap. 7, for the first time, we demonstrate a fast-response and scattering-free homogeneously-aligned PNLC light modulator. Light scattering in the near-infrared region is suppressed by optimizing the polymer concentration such that the network domain sizes are smaller than the wavelength. As a result, the PNLC response time is ~300X faster than that of a pure LC mixture except that the threshold voltage is increased by ~25X. The PNLC cell also holds promise for mid and long infrared applications where response time is a critical issue.


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Graduation Date





Wu, Shin-Tson


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Optics and Photonics

Degree Program









Release Date

May 2005

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)