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What is polarized light?

Blaze Display Technology Co., Ltd. | Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Nematic liquid crystals have a really neat party trick. They can adopt a twisted-up structure and, when you apply electricity to them, they straighten out again. That may not sound much of a trick, but it's the key to how LCD displays turn pixels on and off. To understand how liquid crystals can control pixels, we need to know about polarized light.

Light is a mysterious thing. Sometimes it behaves like a stream of particles—like a constant barrage of microscopic cannonballs carrying energy we can see, through the air, at extremely high speed. Other times, light behaves more like waves on the sea. Instead of water moving up and down, light is a wave pattern of electrical and magnetic energy vibrating through space.

When sunlight streams down from the sky, the light waves are all mixed up and vibrating in every possible direction. But if we put a filter in the way, with a grid of lines arranged vertically like the openings in prison bars (only much closer together), we can block out all the light waves except the ones vibrating vertically (the only light waves that can get through vertical bars). Since we block off much of the original sunlight, our filter effectively dims the light. This is how polarizing sunglasses work: they cut out all but the sunlight vibrating in one direction or plane. Light filtered in this way is called polarized or plane-polarized light (because it can travel in only one plane).

If you have two pairs of polarizing sunglasses (and it won't work with ordinary sunglasses), you can do a clever trick. If you put one pair directly in front of the other, you should still be able to see through. But if you slowly rotate one pair, and keep the other pair in the same place, you will see the light coming through gradually getting darker. When the two pairs of sunglasses are at 90 degrees to each other, you won't be able to see through them at all. The first pair of sunglasses blocks off all the light waves except ones vibrating vertically. The second pair of sunglasses works in exactly the same way as the first pair. If both pairs of glasses are pointing in the same direction, that's fine—light waves vibrating vertically can still get through both. But if we turn the second pair of glasses through 90 degrees, the light waves that made it through the first pair of glasses can no longer make it through the second pair. No light at all can get through two polarizing filters that are at 90 degrees to one another.

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