Move Over Plasma TVs: Nano-Screens Are Coming

Display manufacturers are developing lower-cost alternatives to LCD and plasma technologies.

Motorola revealed its first working nano-emissive display (NED) prototype on Monday at the Society for Information Display (SID) conference in Boston. The company hopes its five-inch diagonal proto-television will attract licensees not yet convinced that Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and plasma screens are the future of high-definition entertainment.

The wafer-thin display – it’s just one-eighth of an inch thick – is actually just one section of a theoretical 42-inch television, which could be mounted on a wall and play DVD movies that look just as bright and clear as they would on LCDs. If companies such as Panasonic and Sony choose NED, they could start manufacturing high-definition sets as early as 2007 – and at the highly competitive price of under $1000.

Motorola has outpaced other carbon nanotube technology innovators, such as Futaba and Samsung, with the first working prototype at a U.S. trade show. (Futaba, a Japanese company, has shown NED prototypes in Japan.) At the conference in Boston, more companies are getting their first look at this promising competitor to LCD and plasma screens that Motorola first announced in June 2003.

It’s an opportune time for Motorola’s announcement, too, since manufacturers are beginning to explore cheaper alternatives to LCD and plasma screens. As more high-definition DVD formats, television broadcasts, and next-generation video games attract consumers, manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce the production costs of HD screens and make them more affordable for consumers.

Today, the cheapest HD sets cost more than $1000. According to market research firm DisplaySearch, though, an 40-inch NED display could retail for $800 or less.

“It’s a much simpler manufacturer process than [cathode ray tube] or LCD,” says DisplaySearch vice president Barry Young. “The equipment costs are lower and the material costs are less. LCD requires a very complex manufacturing process, and CRT displays are even more costly to produce.”

Even with the high price, though, HDTV sales have increased 43 percent since last year, according to Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), so the market is ripe. And any price drop would likely spur HDTV sales to even greater heights.

Instead of using either one cathode ray tube (CRT) or millions of tiny LED lights to project a video image, NED uses millions of accelerated electrons charged by just 5 to 10 volts of electricity, compared with 5,000 volts for large-screen, high-def LCDs. The electrons shoot toward a phosphor plate, creating the moving image. This technique requires less voltage than a CRT, so the displays won’t consume as much power. And, unlike LCD, a nano-emissive display, which uses carbon nanotube technology, will be easily viewable from all angles.

Motorola’s NED technology isn’t a slam dunk, though, since other companies are also racing to create cheap HD alternatives. What’s more, unlike NED and other carbon nanotube-based technologies, some are trying to adapt the more-stable cathode ray tubes to perform better in the digital age. For example, another emissive technology competitor, supported by Sharp and Canon, is known as surface-conduction electron-emitter (SED). It uses a more stable but less efficient method to achieve a similar look to Motorola’s NED. The SED uses one cathode ray tube to shoot electrons toward a phosphor plate, as opposed to using more unpredictable nanotubes.

Using carbon nanotubes has several challenges, according to Dr. Yoke Khin Yap, assistant professor of material physics and laser physics at Michigan Tech University. One is growing them in a uniform and consistent fashion, another is sealing the glass display to prevent impurities from corrupting the image quality, and a third is using reliable phosphor coatings.

“Manufacturers would need to maintain a high level of quality in order to keep production costs low,” Yap says.

That challenge hasn’t stopped Canon and Toshiba, who are jointly developing yet another related technology, an organic light-emitting diode (OLED), which is a film-based carbon technique that has so far been used only in handheld prototypes in the United States. Samsung may be the first manufacturer to release an OLED high-def television display, and recently revealed a full-size prototype in Japan. Still, OLED costs are expected to fall more in line with high-end plasma displays, which leaves the NED technology as potentially the cheapest and best alternative to CRT and LCD screens..

Another critical benefit of NED over other display technologies is no limit to the display size, says Don Bartell, a product director at Motorola. This means the technology could be used by ad agencies erecting monolithic 100-inch roadside billboards and consumers wanting a 42-inch home entertainment centerpiece.

According to Motorola, CRT displays will never extend beyond 36-inch screens and the manufacturing costs for large-screen LCDs will likely remain high for several years.

Of course, until consumers and manufacturers see a nano-emissive display running the latest Hollywood blockbuster or are able to surf the Web on a 60-inch prototype, the carbon nanotube alternative will remain an attractive experiment.

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