Display based on organic molecules may jump from phones to TVs

Monday, December 16, 2002

NEW YORK -- A new technology that makes cell phone screens glow like a firefly's tail may well be destined to brighten displays on everything from televisions to digital cameras.

Built on organic molecules or polymers that glow when they're electrified, the technology could even spur the currently unattainable: roll-up computer screens that can fit in a breast pocket or sheets of radiant lighting that shimmer like the aurora borealis.

"Imagine a plastic film or a fiber-optic cable that emits light, that you can bend in any shape you want," said Stewart Hough, vice president at Cambridge Display Technologies, "It's one of those limited-by-your-imagination things."

Hough's company is developing a polymer-based version of the technology, known as Organic Light-Emitting Diodes or OLEDs (A diode being a piece of electronics in which current flows in only one direction).

Chemical, electronics and lighting companies -- including Kodak, Samsung, Philips, DuPont and others -- are pouring funds into research and development of OLEDs, rushing tiny screens to market and scrambling to race ahead of competitors.

Sales boom expected

For now, the monochrome screens appear on a handful of products: cell phones, an MP3 player, car stereos. As the bright new screens mature into full-color displays with an active matrix that permits video, analysts say they'll jump to digital camera displays, auto dashboards, laptop screens and TVs.

Global sales of OLEDs, estimated at just $80 million in 2002, are expected to jump to $2.3 billion by 2008, said Kimberly Allen, research director at iSuppli/Stanford Resources, a firm that tracks the industry.

As OLEDs progress, analysts say they'll replace the silicon-based LCD, or liquid crystal display technology, that's used in everything from watches and calculators to flat-screen monitors and some TVs.

OLED screens are comprised of arrays of tiny diodes made of organic materials used in plastics and polymers. The diodes in today's little screens are sandwiched between layers of glass, glowing in various colors as electricity flows through them. The delicate organics wither and die at a hint of moisture, so glass is needed to keep them dry.

Experts say it will be a decade or so before someone figures out how to make a durable OLED screen on a plastic base, perhaps a flexible one, which would require flexible circuit boards and other components.

A few companies, including DuPont and Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs, are already working on bendable plastic electronics for such a screen.

"You could put it on curved surfaces," said Alan Heeger, professor of physics at University of California at Santa Barbara. "You can imagine nifty-looking things."

Heeger, whose discoveries in polymer conductivity earned him and two colleagues a Nobel prize in 2000, said the innovations in lighting could be more dramatic than those in consumer electronics.

OLEDs, coupled with mature inorganic LED technology that already brightens traffic signals and auto taillights, could replace incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs with wallpaper that changes lighting patterns and colors, sheets of radiant film that could be cut to size or light cords that accent walls, handrails or steps, Heeger said.

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