Nanopage digital screen can ‘roll up like a blueprint’

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PARIS, Sept. 25, 2003 — Jean Chretien Favreau refers to himself as an “architect/inventor.” He seemed to have been wearing both hats when he first got the idea for Nanopage, a flexible digital screen.

“I would do a lot of computer-assisted design and I was always frustrated by the small-sized screen,” he said. “So I imagined a screen you could roll up like a blueprint.”

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That little idea has come a long way since Favreau registered his first patent in 1998. A few years and five patents later, Nanopage has become a flexible digital screen made of nanotubes. Favreau’s company, Inanov, is still at the prototype stage, but it has already mapped out its industrialization plans. It’s in the process of raising $6.8 million to open a small factory in France’s southwest that could build 50 billboard-size screens of 5 x 3.6 yards a month.

The screen works on the pixel principle. Every pixel is made up of three miniature cathode ray tubes fitted with a few hundred carbon nanotubes.

“A screen of four meters by three meters would contain around 1.4 million of these cathode ray tubes,” Favreau said, as he demonstrated the concept on a rectangular foam pad equipped with tiny bulbs, meant to represent the cathode ray tubes. In the prototype, each bulb is governed by an individual chip. An electronic signal, sent by a computer, travels through a flexible film attached to the numerous bulbs. It’s this signal that tells the nanotubes to turn on or off.

It all works thanks to a unique method of producing nanotubes Inanov has recently developed. With the help of Professor Vu Thien Binh from the University of Lyon in central France, the company has found a way to grow the individual, short nanotubes needed for the screens.

“The nanotubes we make are 50 nanometers in diameter and a few microns long, between 5 and 10,” said Vu Thien Binh in a telephone interview. With this patented method of producing nanotubes, he can generate individual nanotubes that are separated from each other by a distance of a couple of microns. This is quite unlike other methods of producing nanotubes, where the final product is a small mass of undifferentiated tubes.

The company needs to figure out how to industrialize the nanotube production process cheaply. Vu Thien Binh, who owns 8 percent of the company, is confident. “Physically, there is no reason that it shouldn’t work because it’s just a question of replicating what we are already doing on a larger scale,” he said.

The size of available bulbs is what is holding Inanov back. The smallest bulb on the market is half a millimeter wide. This is appropriate for billboard-size screens that are meant to be looked at from afar. But it’s too large for wide-screen televisions. So the company has hired a doctoral student working with the Institute for Material Research of Nantes, in western France, to design micro bulbs.

Until those are developed, Inanov has decided to concentrate on billboards. One French city has volunteered to be the guinea pig. Pau, located in France’s southwest, is famous for its foie gras and rich cuisine. It would also like to be known for being at the cutting edge of technology.

“Information roads are as important as real roads,” explained Jean-Pierre Jambes, director of development for the Pau area. “We want to make these illuminated surfaces part of the urban landscape.” They are to be tested in places like bus stops and city walls to inform citizens about what is going on.

“We could make them interactive so that people could reserve tickets for shows, find out about city services or the weather,” he added. 

Of course Inanov isn’t the only company on the court. Korea’s Samsung  has been working on nanotube displays for years, but has yet to commercialize one. Motorola Inc., DuPont,  California-based startup cDream and Japan’s Noritake also have jumped in the game.

Inanov plans to start selling its first screens in 2006. Kimberly Allen, director of technology and Strategic Research at iSuppli/Stanford Resources, said that isn’t a problem, since competing nanotube displays probably won’t be on the market before then either. “The challenge comes from all the other competitors — liquid crystal display, plasma display panel and projection,” she said. “All of these will be more technically advanced and less expensive in 2006 than they are now.”

But Inanov said it would be satisfied with getting just 1 percent of what is expected to be a $69 billion market in 2005. One percent of that market would amount to 55 factories like the one it is planning in Pau.

With Inanov, Favreau sometimes gets the feeling he is still working as an architect. “We have plans, we surround ourselves with specialists,” he said. “It’s as if we were holding building site meetings, really.”


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