From cat skin to submarines - new materials that are a bit of a stretch

Professor Helen Gleeson
Tuesday, 22 June 2021 - 6:30pm


Liquid crystals are self-organising fluids that are perhaps best known for their use in displays (LCDs). Much of the research in the area over the past 30 years has been focused on achieving faster switching and more complex images in flat panel TVs. However, such technology is now mature and for some time now new, exciting properties of liquid crystals that might lead to rather futuristic applications have been emerging.

Professor Helen Gleeson’s talk will concentrate on liquid crystal elastomers – rubbers that are formed from liquid crystal units that have remarkable properties. Suggested applications include artificial irises, self-cleaning surfaces for solar panels and artificial muscles. Thin films of these materials have been shown to lift many times their own weight. Scientists recently discovered a completely new property in liquid crystal elastomers - auxetic behaviour – whereby the material gets thicker when stretched rather than thinner. This is a property shared with cat skin and of potential use in submarines! Our initial understanding and some potential applications will be described in the talk.


About the speaker

Professor Helen Gleeson moved to Leeds in 2015 to take up the Cavendish Chair after spending the majority of her career at the University of Manchester. She is currently the Head of School. Her research concerns self-ordering and self-assembling materials, particularly liquid crystals. An important part of her research is to understand how liquid crystals can be used for novel applications. Her work has led to the invention of switchable contact lenses in which the voltage-induced change in refractive index of the liquid crystal lens element causes a change in focus, equivalent to putting on reading glasses! Most recently she jointly discovered a new property of liquid crystal elastomers – that they are auxetic (have negative Poisson’s ratio), meaning that they become thicker rather than thinner when stretched! 

Helen’s work has been recognized by the Hilsum and Gray Medals from the British Liquid Crystal Society and the Holweck Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics and French Physical Society.  In 2018, she was named the Times Higher Education Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year. In 2009 she was awarded the OBE for Services to Science, especially her work in the area of equality and diversity in Physics. 


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Photographic portrait of Prof. Helen Gleeson courtesy of the University of Leeds

Event image: cat portrait by Pacto Visual on Unsplash