IBM said it will begin full production of LCD screens using the new technique by the end of this year, and may license the patented technology to other manufacturers.
The principle -- atomic beam alignment -- will replace an effect first discovered 95 years ago, when it was noted that rubbing a polymer substrate with a velvet cloth caused liquid crystals deposited on the substrate to align with the rubbed traces.
Without alignment of the crystals, useable LCDs cannot be built, so all LCD manufacturers have been forced to use the rubbing technique for the last 20 years to build notebook computer and mobile phone displays.
Replacing rubbing by the non-contact atomic beam method has been the most asked-for scientific improvement in the LCD manufacturing world, according to IBM. Among other disadvantages, the rubbing process is not completely understood scientifically, making it difficult to improve the technology or solve difficulties, IBM said.
IBM's new method starts by depositing a thin layer of diamond-like carbon instead of using a polymer substrate. Then, an ion gun shoots atoms at an angle, pushing aside many of the surface carbon atoms. When the rod-shaped liquid crystal molecules are added, one end of each molecule attaches to an exposed carbon atom, resulting in the alignment of all the liquid crystal molecules in the direction of the rows.
The LCD breakthrough is the second technical advance announced recently by IBM. Late last month, it announced it had built the world's first array of transistors out of carbon nanotubes.