RUBBED polymer films (generally polyimides) are used in flat-panel displays to control the alignment of liquid crystals in contact with the polymer1–8, a phenomenon first discovered by Maugin1 in 1911. Buffing the film with a cloth produces liquid-crystal alignment in the rubbing direction. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain this effect. The generation of microgrooves or scratches on the polymer surface during rubbing has led to the suggestion that alignment is the result of long-range elastic effects induced by these surface features3–5. Others have suggested that the polymer chains near the surface are aligned during rubbing and that these then serve as templates for liquid-crystal alignment6–13. Other studies 10–l2 have implied that both mechanisms might be operative. Here we present X–ray scattering measurements which show unambiguously that rubbing a polyimide film causes near-surface alignment of the polymer molecules. For a film 200 nm thick, most of the polymer chains within a thin surface region (about 5 nm thick) are aligned in the rubbing direction; for a 6–nm film essentially all of the chains are aligned within 20° of the rubbing direction. This marked orientation of the near-surface chains at temperatures far below the bulk glass transition temperature shows that the mechanical properties of the near-surface region differ significantly from those of the bulk polymer.
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