York University's John Goodby is Project Leader of the European Science Foundation (ESF) SONS 2 programme LC-NANOP, but it was perhaps only by chance that he and his colleagues entered into a unique Europe-wide collaboration on fundamental science. Goodby's colleague Isabel Saez discovered the ESF SONS 2 programme on the web and suggested that they apply for funding. "I wrote the research proposal LC-NANOP - which stands for liquid crystals nanoparticles - with the help of my colleagues, particularly Isabel and Martin Bates in York," Goodby explains, "We had been developing a programme on liquid crystalline nanoparticles for a while, and the SONS 2 programme seemed an ideal way to fund our fundamental research in this area."
This is perhaps the only network programme available in Europe for collaborations between academics working on fundamental science. The programme keeps teams of researchers together, it improves the training and skills of the researchers involved and gives them the opportunity to develop future programmes, possibly to the European Union with industrial support. "Most networks have industrial relevance," explains Goodby, "however, fundamental studies are not well supported, and without ESF we would not be able to carry out our collaborative research, such research would be stifled."
Goodby coordinates LC-NANOP through six-monthly scientific meetings. "We exchange materials and information informally," he says, "our researchers can move between laboratories, and we can decide between us which are the best experiments to do." He adds that overall all the collaborators own the work produced under LC-NANOP.
The researchers certainly feel that the nanoparticulate approach to liquid crystals is the way forward. "There is much to be gained from fundamental studies of nanoparticulate liquid crystals, particularly on surfaces, and between giant, or macro-molecular entities," says Goodby, "Information is exchanged and amplified in such systems." The collaboration has already started to uncover interesting interactions between chiral, or handed, nanoparticles and new effects are being observed and simulated using sophisticated computer systems all the time.
"So far, we have been able to investigate chiral nanoparticles where we have found some unusual spiralling structures," Goodby says, "These have consequences for how information is transmitted and has some relevance to biological systems."
In terms of the structure of these materials, Goodby points out that they adopt a secondary as well as a tertiary structure. In nature, such a hierarchical structure dominates protein function and form in biology, of course, and because of this some useful parallels may be drawn. The hierarchy may involve successive layers in the nanoparticle or the way in which chemical functional groups are included in the systems, which may be a catalytic point that is located within a self organised and self-assembling system, explains Goodby, such a hierarchy closely resembles the active site found within catalytic proteins such as enzymes.
Goodby points out that the LC-NANOP work is very much of the fundamental kind and specific applications are a long way off. However, he does hint that the researchers' immediate interest is focused on increasing the "switching" speed of conventional liquid crystals by adding, or doping, them with nanoparticles. This might one day lead to a new type of liquid crystal display that responds to changing input much more quickly and smoothly, acting as a frame-sequential colour display, he says. Such technology would overcome the apparent "sluggishness" seen when an LCD attempts to refresh the rapidly changing images as are common in action movies or certain types of computer simulations.
Such is the stuff of awards. Goodby points out that the RSC Award came from a nomination from peers within the physics and engineering field, members of the British Liquid Crystal Society. "It is important that liquid crystals are seen as a multidisciplinary subject, and that research in the field is of equal importance with respect to research that is in only one discipline," says Goodby, "Often multidisciplinary work is not recognised which is a pity."
He adds, that such an award has much wider importance to the community than to him as an individual. "It is not about me or what it will do for me," he says, "Rather I think it is important for the subject of liquid crystals, and for younger scientists working in the field who aspire to perform leading research that will be recognised by mainline scientists."
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