Meanwhile, Xerox had interested itself again in its own technology; Sheridon was put back on the e-paper trail in the mid-1990s. He refined the manufacturing process, and Xerox signed a deal with 3M to manufacture Gyricon sheets in large quantities. By 1999 IBM was also in the fray, and Philips was rumored to be sniffing around the e-paper market. However, despite being founded more than 20 years after Sheridon began work at Xerox, E Ink won the first leg of the race to market. Its initial product, introduced in May 1999, was an in-store display sign for J. C. Penney that could change messages to shoppers. But this “e-placard” lacked a vital characteristic of paper: it couldn’t bend, because the capsules needed to be addressed by a rigid circuit board. Its inflexibility, however, was being addressed from an entirely different direction.In some sense, Sheridon was too early. Around the time he developed the Gyricon balls-the “ink,” so to speak, for electronic paper-other researchers were discovering the principles that eventually would make possible the electronics critical to making the paper itself. But their work came to fruition well after Xerox initially abandoned the Gyricon. And it came as a by-product of an explosion of new research into a seemingly unrelated subject: electrically conducting plastic.
Long known as an insulator, plastic has only recently become known as an electrical conductor. Indeed, the three men most responsible for the discovery of plastic’s conducting properties won the Nobel Prize for chemistry last December. The field they created is generically known as “organic” electronics because the plastics that conduct electricity are based on the kind of carbon-containing molecules that characterize life, even if these particular substances are not found in living beings. Plastic will probably always conduct electricity more slowly and inefficiently than inorganic materials like silicon and copper, researchers say. But plastic is fast enough for many electronics applications-and lighter, cheaper and more flexible than silicon and copper will ever be.
Around the world, chemists and physicists in academia and industry are learning how to create organic circuits in continuous processes, printing or spraying or stamping circuits onto rolls of plastic in a process analogous to printing a newspaper. Despite that analogy, however, the “terrific” idea of e-paper “never occurred” to the discoverers of organic electronics, says Alan Heeger of the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of last year’s Nobelists. But the connection was obvious to researchers involved with electronic inks, like Sheridon and Drzaic at E Ink.
In 1999, E Ink and Lucent Technologies agreed to spend a year trying to learn whether they could actually create the first workable model of true electronic paper. Lucent used its expertise in organic semiconductors to rubber-stamp the addressing circuitry onto a sheet of transparent Mylar. In this innovative process, a thin film of gold is sprayed onto the Mylar; the stamp, which has thin ridges that are coated in a special liquid resist (a chemically protective material) imprints dark lines across the gold; a solvent then washes away the gold, except for the lines shielded by the resist. When E Ink placed a layer of electronic ink on top, the sheet, following its electronic instructions, switched back and forth between a checkerboard pattern and the corporate symbols for E Ink and Lucent. “A world first for that kind of display,” said Pierre Wiltzius, head of condensed-matter research at Bell Labs, the research arm of Lucent, when he announced the result last November.
In December, financially troubled Xerox spun off Gyricon as an independent subsidiary. “E-paper is still something we’re considering,” a spokesperson says. “But right now we want to look at networked in-store signage. Did you know that’s a $14 billion market?”