Nanotech extends the life of tried-and-true liquid crystal displays

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Oct. 25, 2002 — Made using thin, nanostructured polymer films, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are making a big noise in small tech-based displays, but Cleveland-based Viztec Inc. is putting nanotech to work in older, liquid crystal displays that work with existing LCD manufacturing and systems.

While LCDs have been made for more than 30 years, Viztec says its Plastic Pixels technology — a phase separation process using submicron particle coatings — can leverage small tech to keep LCDs big for years to come.

“They’re claiming some good cost benefits,” Gartner Dataquest analyst Jim Walker said. “This would extend LCD technology. It keeps it going. People find ways of extending technology and it looks like they’ve found another one.”

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Viztec envisions its tough, plastic LCD technology in mobile phones and other handsets, wearable devices, toys and military electronics where displays must be thin, light and durable. However, these are the same applications that have generated excitement over OLEDs — glowing plastic molecules made of thin, nanostructured polymer films.

“We think OLEDs are going to be very competitive in mobile phone displays,” said Barry Young of DisplaySearch, a market research and consulting company for the display industry.

While he said OLEDs are already common in some phone displays and will likely spread to PDAs and camcorders, Young said OLEDs are still serving mostly niche applications in small displays such as games and mobile phones.

LCDs, on the other hand, are already produced to the tune of one billion displays a year — used in watches, cell phones, PDAs, laptops and more.

Viztec, which won a $1 million grant from Ohio’s Technology Action Fund earlier this year, boasts that because its technology is compatible with existing LCD manufacturing and drive circuitry — making plastic LCDs “drop-in replacements for traditional glass displays” — the market is hungry for its Plastic Pixels.

“Our technology is agnostic as to what you put in it — that’s been the trick,” said Steve Sundberg, Viztec vice president of sales and marketing. “Being able to control the interaction of molecules in these systems down to submicron accurate is something we’ve created.”

Sundberg cited glass LCD production capacity in Asia as a resource for Viztec, adding that the liquid, drives and processes are all compatible with the company’s technology. “I think we’ve got a cost advantage for a long time,” he said. “We’re able to go in and not upset the existing infrastructure. Market interest in this has been very, very strong.”

Unlike glass-based liquid crystal displays, Viztec’s LCDs are bendable, flexible, lightweight, and comparable in actual display qualities to OLEDs, according to Sundberg.

“We’ve been able to take polymer nanocomposites with submicron features and incorporate them into our process,” he said. “We’re able to bend these substrates, which hasn’t been possible before.”

To prove its technology, which Chief Technology Officer Gary Freeman said is also thin and light enough for smart cards, Viztec recently began work in a new 2,500-square-foot clean room facility to accelerate commercialization. The company’s technology was developed through collaboration with Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute.

Sundberg said that while the clean room is not meant for mass production, it will allow Viztec to run multiple experiments to “demonstrate repeated reliability.”

“What this will be is a stepping stone,” Freeman said. “It will be a starting point to line up manufacturers.”

Still, experts say the future is brightest for OLEDs, which offer flexibility, as well as other advantages such as brightness.

“Enough big strides have been made in developing OLEDs that their introduction seems almost within grasp,” said Leo O’Connor, director of research for Technical Insights. “They would be inexpensive, very bright, flexible and durable.”

OLEDs are not without their issues, however, and O’Connor said their developers must still overcome technical challenges such as degradation — the length of time it takes until the displays begin to lose brightness.

Viztec’s Sundberg, who faults OLEDs for power consumption 100 times that of current liquid crystal displays, said he believes both technologies will have their place. “I think OLEDs and LCDs are going to coexist for a long time into the future,” he said.

Sundberg, who said that funding is Viztec’s biggest challenge now, said the cost of a display based on Plastic Pixel technology would cost less than 25 percent more than a traditional, glass-based LCD.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before OLEDs can get into that range,” he said.

O’Connor said Viztec’s claims of ease of fabrication, ruggedness, reduced complexity and fast switching all bode well for the success of its technology, suggesting improved performance and reduced costs.

“Because the developers have invested in a 2,500-square-foot clean room, they are obviously confident in their ability to accelerate commercialization of their technology,” O’Connor said.


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