Super-vivid, super-efficient displays

New OLED displays for mobile gadgets are poised for debut in U.S. and European markets.

Your next MP3 player may sport more-vivid color displays and longer-lasting batteries. That’s because a major manufacturing effort by South Korea’s Samsung SDI could help bring a display technology called organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, into the mainstream. Until now, OLED displays have not been manufactured in high volumes, and applications have generally been limited to Asian markets.

Organic light-emitting diode displays, which require less than half the power of liquid-crystal displays while offering more-vivid colors, are headed for their first mass manufacture: a new Samsung SDI factory in South Korea is expected to begin production early next year. (Credit: Samsung SDI)

OLEDs are based on a light-emitting conductive organic molecules that consumes one-half to one-fifth of the power of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs). Displays using OLEDs present more-vivid colors and allow for clearer videos, thanks to a faster “refresh rate.” As the technology matures and cheapens, it could ultimately replace current computer-monitor and television technologies.

While other electronics companies are in the planning stages for ramping up manufacture and adoption of OLEDs, Samsung is spending $500 million to build an OLED factory that will begin production next year. Samsung hopes to churn out between one million and two million displays per month, initially for cell phones and other mobile devices that would move beyond Asian markets, says Barry Young, an industry analyst.

The Samsung effort (see Samsung’s technology explainer here) includes technology from Universal Display, of Princeton, NJ, which pioneered an OLED variant that uses phosphorescent molecules to produce the reds, blues, and greens necessary for a color display with very high efficiency.

Stephen Forrest, vice president of research at the University of Michigan, whose research group (originally at Princeton University) licensed its OLED technology exclusively to Universal Display, believes the Samsung factory is a huge milestone. “We are at a very critical frontier,” he says. “This is a good technology, and people know it, so now it’s a matter of getting more companies committed to entering into manufacturing. To make a better, cheaper, more efficient display is a very important part of our everyday life.”

Julie Brown, chief technology officer at Universal Display, says that OLED technology has improved greatly over the past several years. The life span of the organic materials has increased by a factor of ten in the past two years, she says, and “there have been fundamental molecular-level materials discoveries, design and manufacturing improvements over the last five to ten years.”

Other OLED players, including Cambridge Display, based in Cambridge, England (see a recent Cambridge Display announcement), and the Netherlands’s Philips Electronics, are improving the technology for displays as well as for the farther-out application of general white-light illumination, which would consist of glowing white sheets. But it’s the color OLED displays that are reaching mass production.

Already, OLED displays made by Samsung, Sony, and others have been sold in products in Asian countries but generally not in Europe or North America. “The Asian-community consumers are much more demanding for high-performance electronics,” says Brown. “People here take a long time” to adopt new technology. “Also, for manufacturers to break into the U.S. market, production volume needs to be up there.”

Samsung has said that it will start production in early 2007. “It’s very significant because they are a high-volume mass manufacturer,” says Brown. “There have been a number of products launched, but everyone is watching Samsung.” Sony, which launched an OLED effort for PDAs a few years ago but then abandoned the devices, also jumped back into the technology last year by launching a Walkman with an OLED display.

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