Carbon TVs to edge out liquid crystal, plasma?

If you've bought a plasma TV, you might get one-upped in two years, when TVs using new carbon technology arrive.

You can find carbon in coal and tennis rackets, and a few years from now, it could run your TV.

Various companies are currently trying to perfect the technology behind a new type of flat-panel display that will rely on diamonds or carbon nanotubes--two forms of pure carbon--to produce images.

Theoretically, these "field emitter displays," or FEDs, will consume less energy than plasma or liquid crystal display (LCD) TVs, deliver a better picture and even cost less. The development of FEDs underscores the rapid changes taking place in what had been a relatively staid TV market.

Once dominated by a few Japanese manufacturers, the television market now includes a wide variety of companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Westinghouse. If successful, FEDs could even render the new TVs being shown off this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas as has-beens.

"The concept of a nanotube TV will give you image quality similar to CRTs (cathode ray tubes), and the best image quality is still found on CRT TVs," said Tom Pitstick, vice president of marketing at Houston's Carbon Nanotechnologies. "All the major display manufacturers are looking at nanotube TVs."

Electronics giant Samsung has already produced a prototype of a TV-size display made with CNI's nanotubes. Televisions based on the new screens will nudge onto shelves in late 2006, he added.

Meanwhile, Advance Nanotech, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, is developing a similar panel that relies on specially doped diamond dust. The company hopes to have working prototypes in 18 months to two years.

So far, some of the biggest proponents of this approach could be Canon and Toshiba. The two manufacturers have formed a joint venture to make surface conduction electron emission (SED) panels, and Toshiba will produce large-screen SED televisions in 2006. Although Canon and Toshiba's description of SEDs is very similar to that of FEDs, the two companies are using a different particle than carbon, industry analysts said.

Technological hurdles remain, and delays are also inevitable. In 2003, some said nanotube-based televisions could possibility come out in 2005 .

But that goal is still a pipe dream for many. Candescent , for example, once touted as America's re-entry into the display industry, burned through $600 million in funding before abandoning plans to produce FEDs made with materials other than carbon in 2001. It sold its assets to Canon in August 2004, two months after filing for voluntary reorganization under Chapter 11.

Then there is the problem of previous investment. "It is hard to imagine you can break into an industry where LCD investment is going like crazy," said Paul Semenza, vice president of display research at iSuppli. "It is hard to be optimistic."

Matthew Nordan of Lux Research agreed, predicting that companies may hold off until 2006 to build plants for mass production of nanotube-based televisions starting in 2008 or 2009.

The science behind the display
FEDs, in a sense, are a hybrid of CRT televisions and LCD televisions. In a CRT, an electron gun at the back of a large vacuum tube shoots electrons at a piece of phosphor-coated glass divided into points. The phosphor creates light from the

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    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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