Samsung SDI prospects for OLED

A Samsung display unit teams up with Vitex Systems in search of a way to mass-produce OLED display screens that are lighter and thinner than their LCD rivals.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read
Samsung SDI is teaming with Vitex Systems, a start-up developing organic light-emitting diode technology, to build thinner, lighter displays aimed at the mobile device market.

The company said Tuesday that during the initial phase of the joint venture, it would fund Vitex's Barrier Engineering Program. The program is developing for Samsung a specialized display design built around the start-up's proprietary display manufacturing process.

Samsung SDI, one of South Korean electronics giant Samsung's two display units, did not disclose the amount of the funding. Samsung is one of the largest manufacturers of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs).

"We're beyond the R&D phase, and now we're looking to get our technology to market," said John McMahon, a Vitex spokesman. "Teaming with Samsung gives us the manufacturing expertise to get our technology out there."

McMahon said the companies are working to get full-color organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays to market by late 2004.

Many companies are working on a new display technology to claim a share of the multibillion-dollar global market for flat-panel monitors dominated by LCDs. OLED is considered the front-runner in next-generation display technologies, but others, such as San Francisco-based start-up Iridigm, have also been developing promising alternatives.

So far, OLED has the broadest support from manufacturers, but analysts believe it will be something on the order of 10 years before OLED can be a viable challenger to LCD. OLED screen technology is being used in smaller devices, such as electric shavers and cell phones.

OLED displays don't require a backlight because the polymers used in the display light up when an electrical charge is applied. The light-emitting characteristic means that devices won't need as much power to run and can be thinner than LCDs, which are dependant on a backlight. Screens are the most power-consuming and expensive component in most computing devices.

Through the Vitex joint venture, Samsung SDI hopes to see how easy it would be to mass-produce full-color, active-matrix OLED products. If feasible, the company said it plans to bring to the market OLED-based displays that are 50 percent lighter and thinner than the LCD screens generally available today.

The market for OLED displays is projected to grow from $112 million worldwide in 2002 to $3.1 billion by 2007, according to a report from research group DisplaySearch.

While many start-ups and major technology corporations are deeply immersed in developing OLED-based displays, a major hurdle to the commercial adoption of the technology is the overwhelming expense of mass production.

One manufacturing challenge, for example, is the sensitivity of the organic matter used in the display to moisture and oxygen. These can quickly destroy OLED displays, if the screen is left unprotected, according to Vitex.

The company has come up with a process named "Barix," in which a proprietary thin-film coating is placed on the display, creating a barrier against environmental damage that is as effective as a sheet of glass. By placing this coating directly on top of OLED material and its glass substrate, display manufacturers could eliminate the bulk--and cost--of the usual top sheet of glass or metal.

Multicolor OLED
Separately, a team of German scientists searching for a way to solve the same manufacturing problem said they have developed a cheaper, simpler process to create multicolor OLED displays. Manufacturers have found it difficult to support full color on OLED screens.

The researchers, led by C. David Muller of the chemistry department at the University of Munich, used a method called "solution processing" to create a class of electroluminescent polymers that can be patterned to fabricate pixilated matrix displays. The work is published in the Feb. 20 issue of the journal Nature.

"I think one of the most important developments described in the paper is that it provides some hope for manufacturers of polymer-based OLED, who are facing a real challenge right now," said Kimberly Allen, the director of technology and strategic research at the research firm iSuppli/Stanford Resources.

Although multicolored OLEDs have already been successfully manufactured using a vacuum deposition of small electroluminescent molecules by researchers and companies such as Philips, the process is said to be cumbersome.

This method also "requires relatively costly technology." said Klaus Meerholz, a professor at University of Cologne and a member of the German research team.

Meerholz added that the team's research work has been patented and licensed for commercialization. He declined to name which company or companies had licensed the manufacturing process.