OLEDs get ready to light up
the market for flexible screens

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Aug. 29, 2002 — Small tech is heading to the small screen.

Displays made of glowing plastic molecules called OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) promise brighter and cheaper alternatives to liquid crystal displays (LCDs).

Made of thin, nanostructured polymer films, OLED screens based on technologies developed by companies such as Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) in England and Eastman Kodak Co. of Rochester, N.Y., are beginning to hit the market.

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OLEDs could enable thinner, lower-powered and more flexible screens for uses in products such as cameras, PDAs, cell phones, laptops, computer monitors and even televisions.

Because they emit their own light, while LCDs require a light source, OLEDs would use less power, take up less space and be lighter — all cost effective advantages over LCDs.

OLED expert Barry Young, vice president of DisplaySearch, an Austin, Texas, market research company, forecasts that OLED screen sales will reach $2.5 billion by 2006.

Kodak is already producing OLED color screens based on its “small molecule” technology in partnership with Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. Commercial applications include Pioneer car stereos and Motorola Inc. cell phones.

Universal Display Corp. of Ewing, N.J., announced Aug. 12 that the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded it two $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts to develop its OLED technologies for general lighting applications.

On Aug. 16, DuPont Displays and RiTdisplays of Taiwan launched high-volume production of OLED display modules at a fabrication facility in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

CDT’s polymer screens, produced with inkjet-printing equipment from the company’s Litrex Corp. subsidiary, have already debuted in monochrome versions for a Philips electric shaver, said Stewart Hough, CDT vice president of business development. He also said the company expects full-color products to reach the market by the third quarter next year, with full-color active matrix displays suitable for PDAs and laptop screens ready by 2004.

Last week, CDT announced a partnership to integrate MediaWorks Technology Corp. Inc.’s System-on-Chip” (SoC) display controllers with its polymer displays. One goal is to use MediaWorks’ intelligent electronics to reduce power consumption in portable devices. Another is to extend the life span of the plastic display’s pixels by sending signals only when needed.

Young said that OLED screen life has greatly improved from about 2,000 hours a few years ago to 10,000 hours today, and he expects life spans to double to 20,000 hours in the next year or two.

Young anticipates that the plastic screens will initially cost more than LCDs and find applications in small displays like camera viewfinders and mobile phones. But within three to four years, he believes, they will cost 10 to 20 percent less and boast higher performance than LCDs.

Compared with LCDs, Young noted, OLEDs offer higher contrast, faster response time and wider viewing angles while using less power. Frost & Sullivan consultant Mamta Kailkhura wrote in an April report that “the superior display properties of OLEDs pose a direct challenge to the prevailing dominance of LCDs in the flat panel displays market.”

Young expects to see OLEDs move up into notebook computers and eventually into television sets. Young said that next year Sony will market a 13-inch OLED television based on Kodak and Sanyo’s small molecule display.

Young said that Kodak has the early commercial lead and an advantage in color and lifetime over CDT’s technique. He noted, however, Kodak’s approach requires materials to be evaporated through a mask, while CDT polymers can be put into a solution and applied to a surface much more efficiently and economically with inkjet equipment.

“With CDT’s technology, you can pattern pixels more densely” for high resolution displays, he explained. Young also noted that CDT’s process was 5 to 10 percent faster than Kodak’s.

CDT’s Hough said that small technology has been essential in commercializing OLEDs. Small tech comes into play in everything from equipment used to measure and analyze the light-emitting polymer films, Hough said, to refining the complex organic chemistry necessary to improve the optical performance of polymer displays.


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