Scientists discovered that by purposely creating "defects" in liquid crystals they could easily guide molecules into specific positions, allowing them to create impressive nanoscale structures and new materials.

In the study, the researchers created defects shaped like "ropes" that could then be filled with water and fat-loving molecules to create shapes. These shapes could then be linked together and transformed into new materials. This new discovery could have valuable applications in a wide variety of fields, including electronics and medicine, the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported.

"By controlling the geometry of the system, we can send these channels from any one point to any other point," said Nicholas Abbott, a UW-Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering. "It's quite a versatile approach."

Using their new method, the researchers were able to assemble phospholipids (molecules organized into the walls of living cells) within the manufactured liquid crystal defects. The team believes the breakthrough method could also be used to create metallic wires and other semiconducting materials used in electronics. In the future, the method could potentially be used to create a man-made membrane, in which one type of molecule can pass through while others can't. 

"This is an enabling discovery," Abbott said. "We're not looking for a specific application, but we're showing a versatile method of fabrication that can lead to structures you can't make any other way."

The accomplishment comes after two decades of looking at the potential applications of soft materials, including liquid crystals.

"We've done a lot of work in the past at the interfaces of liquid crystals, but we're now looking inside the liquid crystal," Abbot said. "We're looking at how to use the internal structure of liquid crystals to direct the organization of molecules. There's no prior example of using a defect in a liquid crystal to template molecular organization."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Nature Materials