Organic EL displays step forward

OELDs contain an organic layer which glows brightly when power is applied, meaning a large, power-guzzling backlight is not needed. This means the displays can be made smaller and battery life in portable products in which they are used is extended. In addition, they have very wide viewing angles, high contrast and good colour reproduction when compared to current liquid crystal displays (LCDs).

This string of factors has led a number of industry heavyweights, from Sony to Samsung Electronics, to kick off research into the technology as some observers predict OELDs could replace current TFT (thin film transistor) LCDs in the future. Two companies sit at the heart of the technology, Eastman Kodak and Sanyo, and both were pushing the technology at CeBIT along with a handful of other companies that had licensing agreements from the two.

Kodak formed a new division of the company on 1 January this year to commercialise its OELD technology, Kodak Display Products, and division president Leslie Polgar was at CeBIT to promote the screens.

He said Kodak plans to enter commercial production of full colour active matrix OELDs in mid 2002 in an attempt to grab a share of what the company predicts will be a $US1 billion market between now and 2005. Active matrix display technology, used in TFT LCDs, is more responsive than passive matrix technology, used in dual scan LCDs, and as such active matrix screens have a better image quality.

When Kodak starts production next year the company will be producing screens for cellphones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) and larger screens are planned for 2003 and later.

Sanyo too was displaying a small number of its prototype screens. Despite buzz surrounding use of the devices in cellular telephones, the Japanese company is planning to target the digital camera market initially with a production schedule similar to Kodak.

"We are very interested in devices like digital still cameras or camcorders," said Takayuki Harada, chief planner of the LCD division at Sanyo. "The (cellular telephone) market is very big but very big production capacity is required." Focusing on the smaller digital camera market will enable Sanyo to build up its production capacity until volumes are equal to those of mobile telephones.

But Kodak and Sanyo are not the only two companies working on the technology. A number of companies have already taken licenses from the two covering OELD technology and others are also busy working on prototypes. They include Pioneer, Sony, NEC and Samsung.

One of the market leaders at present is Taiwan's Ritek which signed a licensing deal with Kodak last year. The company is already commercially producing OELDs for two customers, according to Eric Tseng, sales manager for the company's display division.

He wouldn't divulge actual output of screens but said the plant was processing 25,000 glass substrates of size 400 by 400 millimetres per month. A second production line, due on stream in the third quarter, will have a capacity of 70,000 glass substrates of size 370 by 470 millimetres.

Customers are still thin on the ground -- Tseng said Ritek only had two or three and wouldn't name them -- although he too predicts big things for OELD in the future but not perhaps until full color active matrix displays are available. "I think the monochrome or multi-colour (displays) are not enough to compete with TFTs so the market won't get big until 2003 when active matrix (OELD) colour comes."

Samsung NEC Mobile Display, a joint venture between NEC and Samsung established earlier this year to commercialise its OELD technology was also at CeBIT. It will begin full scale production of a passive matrix color screen for cellphones from June this year, said Jae Ho Na, manager of the company's development team.

Initial production will be between 20,000 and 30,000 screens per month but Na said he expects production to be 70,000 screens per month by the end of this year. The company is currently talking to several other companies including Nokia and Mitsubishi about putting the devices into their cellphones.

Engineers have a lot of work to complete before the colour active matrix technology can be commercialised, both on the OELD and production equipment sides of the equation. Current generation monochrome displays have a life of between 6000 and 10,000 hours although for color displays it is much less.

In fact, when Pioneer debuted a new OELD display at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) show in Berlin last year it was somewhat of a suicide mission for the screen -- the display had a life time of just four days and burnt out soon after the show was over.

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Martyn Williams

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