When the Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer discovered the first liquid crystals in 1888, nobody could have imagined how incredible the career would be of these substances with fascinating optical properties. Today, liquid crystals produce sharp, high-contrast, brilliant images on the displays of almost all electronic devices. In 2012 alone, around 230 million televisions, 220 million notebooks, 180 million computer monitors, 120 million tablet computers and over one billion mobile phones were sold worldwide.
As the market and technology leader, Merck supplies this huge display market with liquid crystals and other high-tech materials. By running our fingers over the touchscreen of an exquisite smartphone, we set into motion an array of liquid crystal molecules that have most likely been produced by Merck in Darmstadt. Yet very few consumers know this. For decades, Merck has been a key driver in the technological development of liquid crystal displays (LCDs): we currently own some 2,500 patents in this area, with a further one hundred new patent applications submitted every year.
The high level of R&D expenditure pays off: In 2011, our Liquid Crystals business unit generated sales of almost 1.1 billion euros, which represents nearly eleven per cent of our total group annual sales. Yet how does an originally medium-sized chemical company in Darmstadt become a world market leader in such a key technology? Besides intensive research and development, close customer interaction is a second decisive factor. Another is a strategy of long-term thinking.
Merck was present in the field of liquid crystals right from the beginning. As far back as 1905, Emanuel August Merck supported Otto Lehmann, a professor of physics from Karlsruhe, for whose pioneering research he had liquid crystals of especially high purity produced in Darmstadt. Molecules normally have a perfect arrangement only in solid crystals, whereas in liquids they wander around chaotically. However, liquid crystals turned out to be a hybrid form of matter: although they are liquid, they show a certain crystalline arrangement. Their rod-like molecules align themselves like a shoal of fish. In addition, they respond like tiny antennae to the electromagnetic waves of light. Consequently, such swarms of molecules can either transmit or block specially prepared „polarized“ light. This takes place in the pixels of LCDs.
Real progress only came into the field of liquid crystals in 1967, however, when the engineer George Heilmeier from Radio Corporation of America (RCA) presented the first liquid crystal display. This also excited the attention of chemists working in research at Merck. The researchers in Darmstadt soon recognized that liquid crystals made the vision of flat, compact displays tangible. However, the liquid crystal substances known at that time still had considerable disadvantages. Heilmeier’s first display needed an operating temperature of 80 degree in order not to freeze. These liquid crystal displays had very slow switching times, and they were monochrome as well – still a very long way off from the full colour, 3D 65-inch widescreen TVs we know today. It took a long chain of technological breakthroughs, in which Merck played and still plays a key role.
At that time Japanese companies dominated the LCD market, and it became clear to us that we had to be close to these key customers. We could only further develop this still young technology in close contact with them, so in the year 1980 Merck commissioned the first production site at Atsugi near Tokyo in Japan.
At the same time, we implemented a global strategy that has been working successfully ever since. Liquid crystal “singles” are still manufactured at our headquarters in Darmstadt. Central research in Darmstadt was also expanded further, which is a clear commitment to the Rhine-Main Region. We also have an important research laboratory in Chilworth near Southampton, United Kingdom. The research facilities in Darmstadt and Chilworth work closely with subsidiaries in Asia, as they also have a pool of highly qualified scientists. Together with the customers, they develop tailored liquid crystal mixtures that are then produced by Merck at that location. Since the 1980s, new key LCD manufacturers have also sprung up outside of Japan. We have grown along with them and constructed new laboratories and mixing stations in Korea in 2002 and in Taiwan in 2005.
Another milestone is the vertical alignment (VA) technology, which we co-developed with Fujitsu Ltd. in 1997. It was this technology that first enabled ultrashort switching times rendering smooth, sharp images of fast movements in LCDs. This finally made LCDs suitable for television viewing. For this development, three Merck scientists were awarded the German Future Prize by the German Federal President in 2003.
Born in 1956, the author is head of the Performance Materials division at Merck. Mr. Galinat has been with the company since 1976 and in charge of liquid crystals since 2007. He was managing director in Taiwan for ten years, where he witnessed the success of these high-tech chemicals first hand. Along with Japan, Korea and China, Taiwan is the most important customer for display materials today.