Taiwan's ITRI develops e-paper technology

The research institute plans to commercialize the e-paper technology in two years

Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), one of the world's largest R&D organizations, has developed e-paper technology which it expects to be used mainly as easily updated signage and posters in shops and other public areas.

ITRI demonstrated prototypes of the e-paper that it aims to commercialize in two years.

The e-paper has the ability to print red, green, and blue in different parts of the paper and a roll-to-roll printing process that is similar to the technology used on a conventional newspaper press that helps cut production cost, ITRI said. The colors cannot however be mixed.

One example of an application for the product that ITRI demonstrated was an e-paper clock that refreshes electronically with each second. Other possibilities include e-wallpaper and e-tickets that can be recycled and reprinted for hundreds of events.

"This is a killer application," said Frank Shiu, deputy division director of ITRI's Display Technology Center.

Commercialized e-paper products could take a bite out of the multi-billion dollar market for conventional paper printing that's dominated by companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Canon, according to ITRI. The flexible display market is expected to surge from US$280 million in 2010 to $5.9 billion in 2015, according to market research firm Displaybank. One of HP's most profitable products is toner cartridges for the printers it makes.

ITRI's e-paper can be printed in a number of ways including with thermal, electrical and physical technology. With small modifications, thermal printers in fax machines can be used to print on the e-paper, Shiu said.

ITRI is working with nine companies in Taiwan to commercialize the technology. It may choose to spin off an e-paper startup company if it can find venture capitalists to provide financing. An alternative would be to do a "spin-in" partnership with a large company, according to Shiu.

The e-paper can be thermally reprinted 260 times, and ITRI aims to increase that number to 500 times during the next year or two.

When ITRI acquired the technology from Kodak in 2007, it could be used to print only monochrome at a resolution of 6 dpi (dots per inch). After three years of development, ITRI has added the ability to print red, green and blue at a resolution of 300 dpi.

Part of the inspiration behind ITRI's development work was the aim to develop products that save energy and reduce carbon emissions, Shiu said. ITRI said that when used in a shop over a 24-hour period, a piece of e-paper measuring five inches diagonally consumes 0.54 watts of power, compared with a five-inch LCD with an LED backlight that consumes 1.2 watts during the same 24-hour period.

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