U of T researchers take flexible displays to market

p>Canadian researchers have set up a company that will bring to market a technology for accelerating the transition from liquid crystal displays to a less power-hungry screens in PCs, notebooks and other portable devices.

A University of Toronto

professor, Zhenghong Lu, is in the process of securing a patent for his work in developing a way of using carbon material called fullerene to make organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays. The school’s Innovations Foundation said it will spin off a firm, Norel Optronics Inc., which will license the technology to various display manufacturers. 

OLEDs sandwich organic material between special layers of plastic, which luminate when charged. LCDs, in contrast, simply shine light from behind the display. OLEDs don’t require a backlight, which could mean considerable power savings in a number of devices. HP, among others, has said it is working overtime to reduce power in its mobile computing products.

Lu’s approach uses fullerenes, which are so small that they are measured in nanometres, to transport materials within an OLED. Nano-structured carbon is very conductive, which is normally a problem in OLEDs, he said.

“Most organic molecules are very fragile,” he said. “Whenever it’s touched by a bad meterial, it actually fragments what collects the molecules together. It seems to me that’s a fundamental weakness of this technology.”

Fulleranes are ideal candidates because they are more conductive and form a strong chemical bond between the layers of OLEDs, he said.

“They are very efficient in emitting light under stimulation,” he said. “The key is just to set the charge to the light-emitting molecules to make them operate.”

The U of T isn’t the first to use nanomaterials. Motorola, for example, is clusters of tiny carbon nanotubes 50 times less than the width of a human hair in length behind every dot on a screen. Samsung is hoping to make products based on this approach, described as nano-emissive display, starting next year. Sony, meanwhile, has already invested billions in a joint venture with Toyota Industries to ramp up production of OLED displays.

Kimberly Allen, an analyst with El Segundo, Calif.-based market research firm iSuppli, said OLEDs have been on the market since 1999 and already represents a market worth half a billion dollars. Although this isn’t a fledgling segment, it’s not an established one other, she said, adding that Lu’s technology could find customers.

“They claim it’s going to be better contact with other layers that are already there,” she said. “You can get some scattering at the interface or other effects that reduce the efficiency of the device. It’s critical that every layer works as well as it can, and that every layer works well with every other layer.”

Although Lu co-founded Norel, the company has been stacked with executives from display companies such as Luxell to give it credibility with potential clients, said Mike Szarka, technology manager with the U of T’s Innovations Foundation.

“Essentially Norel was created to commercialize this invention,” he said. “I think the long-term plan for Norel is to continue working, focused on the area of display technologies, but hopefully build a portfolio in related technologies.”

Allen said there is no time to waste.

“I would say the companies like Norel that are trying to start out with a new material offering would need to get in pretty quickly with these manufacturers that are already building their factories,” she said.

Lu said he was confident Norel will be able to market the technology successfully, given that OLEDs hold so much promise.

“You really want power savings for any portable device,” he said. “That’s a must. Everybody wants the battery to last for several weeks.”

Norel is getting its start through a strategic partnership with display maker Sumitomo Canada Ltd., which has made an equity investment in the startup.

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