Flexible screens as thin as a piece of paper may be available for e-readers by early next year thanks to a project from Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and licensee AU Optronics, one of the world's largest LCD screen makers.
ITRI developed a manufacturing process for the thin displays and AU is in the process of converting an old factory to mass produce them, according to John Chen, general director of the Display Technology Center at ITRI.
AU Oprtonics confirmed the joint research project with ITRI but declined further comment.
"The beauty of this technology is you use today's production technology," he said, adding that there's no need to invest billions of dollars in a new factory, which would increase the price of the technology and any end-products it finally went into.
The partnership could lead to thin, flexible displays that could be added to mobile phones for a instant, pull-out screen to wearable screens on clothes or larger rolled up screens that serve the daily news at breakfast every day.
The current project is to make e-reader screens aimed at schools. The idea is that the flexible screens are more resistant to breaking, since they bend, and would make better e-readers for young children. The downside of the idea is that a new touchscreen function for the paper-thin screens is not quite ready, though it is also already being licensed by ITRI to another company that specialises in touchscreen technology.
The other point of the project is to move to brilliant colour screens such as AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) in the future from the monochrome flexible screens that will be made for e-readers. Converting the AU factory to produce the thin, flexible screens is a project that will eventually lead to AMOLED and other kinds of paper-thin screens.
Coming up with a way to manufacture the thin screens was particularly tricky, said Chen.
The flexible screens are so thin, around 30 microns, that they have to be bonded to a piece of glass during the production process so they don't curl up, Chen said. Problems cropped up when they tried to lift the flexible screen off the glass at the end of the process because heat used in production caused the screens to bond to the glass, so they usually ripped. ITRI tried and failed 63 times to figure out a way to lift the finished screen from the piece of glass before a night out watching a cook led them to the result.
The cook used oil to lift thin Taiwanese crepe from a hot pan, fully intact. ITRI came up with a similar way to add a not-too-sticky material between the flexible display and the glass that enabled them to lift the flexible screen off the glass without a problem.
ITRI calls the process FlexUPD, flexible universal panel for displays.
Currently, ITRI has developed paper-thin, flexible colour AMOLED screens and the touchscreen film for displays 10-inches and smaller, according to Kung Chen-pang [CQ], project manager for the thin touchscreens. ITRI calls the touchscreen technology, Flexible Touch-sensing AMOLED film.
He did not say when the AMOLED screens might be available, but said ITRI has already licensed the technology to a private company in Taiwan. ITRI is a government sponsored research institute and its inventions are licensed globally, but first offer is usually given to Taiwanese companies.
"We don't do an exclusive licence," said Chen, noting that AU will face competition. He said companies from other countries will also be able to obtain licences, and noted that one South Korean company had already gained a licence, though he declined to say whether it was Samsung Electronics or LG Display.
The price of the new generation of thin, flexible displays is unknown so far.
Chen said that "volume will drive the price down," and that device makers will like the screens because they actually use less material since they're thinner, are less expensive, preserve natural resources and more.