What's New in Technology for August 2003

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HI TECH NEWS - Coming To A Screen Near You
A completely new type of screen technology for laptops, cell phones and other hand-held devices is on the horizon. Based on organic light-emitting diodes—more commonly known by their acronym—OLEDs, these new types of screens have been dubbed the most significant advance in display technology since the ’60s when liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) first debuted. Look for the first OLEDs in hand-held gadgets later this year. Kodak plans to rollout a new digital camera that uses OLED soon and Sanyo plans to launch a new series of mobile phones with OLED screens before year-end. Experts predict sales of about $200 million during the first year for OLED products, and a market in excess of $3 billion in five years.

Made from plastics instead of semiconductors, this new screen technology delivers sharp, clearer images and is expected to go head-to-head with the traditional LCD display screens—and win. If this new OLED technology addresses the current limitations of LCD screens, and lives up to the expectations of the more than 70 companies involved in bringing OLEDs to market, it will open up a range of new application possibilities. Ultimately, OLEDs may usher in a brave new “paperless” world.

So much for the hopes and aspirations of the developers, let’s take a look at what is different about OLED technology and where we can expect to see the new screens first.

What’s different about OLEDs
The two screen technologies are quite different. In simple terms, the LCDs we use today must be backlit in order for the pixel-generated images to appear. On the other hand, OLEDs emit their own light and do not need energy-guzzling backlights. LCDs are known for their complex assembly procedures and relatively cumbersome design. OLED screens look sharper, clearer and brighter, and most significantly, they do not consume as much power as LCD screens, which are only a miserable 10-15 percent efficient in converting energy from the power source into a readable image. If you are a lap top user, you are probably only too aware that operating the screen sucks up most of your battery power.

Not only do OLEDs use less energy from the power source, which makes fabricating them easier, but they also use low voltage. Because they have fewer components and are simpler to manufacture, OLEDs are expected to be cheaper than LCDs.

What is new about the technology?
Light-emitting diodes have been around for some 30 years or so. In the 1970s they were used in watches and calculators, and they are still used in electrical appliances as indicator lights. These early applications used costly semi-conductors, which would have been expensive to assemble into a screen display.

Kodak is acknowledged as the pioneer in OLED technology. Today, there is major competition from industry giants like DuPont as well as many small entrepreneurial technology firms working hard to bring new OLED screens to consumers in a variety of products.

What’s new today is that the diodes use new semi-conductor compounds—conjugated polymers-- that are less expensive and less complicated to fabricate than the earlier generation of OLEDs. When these new-generation diodes are placed between negative and positive electrodes they produce light efficiently. A wide variety of compounds can be utilized to generate different colors and visual effects. There are several speedy and inexpensive ways—including screen-printing, ink jets or spin coating onto plastic substrates-- to fabricate the screens.

A few hurdles remain before OLEDs can fully challenge LCD technology. The OLED screens consume less energy but as yet their efficiency rate --although double that of LCDs—is still only about 30 percent, and, perhaps, not enough to justify switching technology. Finding the right combination of red, green and blue light-emitting diodes with a long, stable life span continues to challenge developers.

Though more work remains to be done in the research lab, many industry analysts believe that OLED research will create the means to totally change the manner and way we use display screens. Looking four or five years ahead, these pundits suggest that OLEDs will not only change screens in lap tops, phones and cameras but also that the technology will usher in a slew of previously unimagined communication tools and gadgets.


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