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Trio teams up for bendable screens

LCDs beware. DuPont, Sarnoff and Lucent Technologies join forces to develop a flexible OLED-based display screen that could even wrap around curved surfaces.

Three companies have agreed to collectively develop a new display technology that could lead to thin, flexible monitors that can be wrapped around curved surfaces such as light poles.

DuPont, Sarnoff and Lucent Technologies said Tuesday they will work together for three years as part of an initiative sponsored by the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

DuPont will provide technical input for combining organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, technology to flexible substrates, or bases, and for the manufacturing process. For its part, Sarnoff will work to improve video display systems and the use of color. Lucent will be subcontracted to develop the organic materials and the design of the electronic components used in the displays. The flexible displays that the joint effort will be developing will use polymer-based OLED.

The goal of the initiative is to step up the time frame for the commercial production of flexible displays using OLED technology, which could eventually challenge liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in the multibillion-dollar market for flat-panel monitors. Displays using OLED technology do not require a backlight, so they are expected to consume less power and be thinner than LCDs.

However, analysts estimate it will be 10 years before sizable OLED displays will be ready to take on LCDs. As with any emerging technology, it will take time to streamline production and boost yields for high efficiencies and volumes. OLED displays are currently used in smaller devices, such as cell phones and electric shavers.

Flexible OLED screens are drawing a lot of attention from the display industry because of the potential appeal of a screen that people could roll up and put away or carry. On a more practical level, it appeals to development companies because the application of OLED to a plastic background is a production technique that could cut costs.

"Anytime you have a silicon-based component in a display technology, such as LCDs, it gets expensive," said Dalen Keys, chief technology officer with DuPont's display unit. "Using a flexible display and a solution-based technology, we can get to a lower-cost situation."

Keys would not comment on how much OLED displays using a plastic background could save manufacturers compared to LCDs. The flexible displays are expected to be appear first in smaller devices and then move to larger displays. Some companies are demonstrating prototypes of large displays.

The market for OLEDs is projected to grow from $85 million this year to $3 billion by 2007, according to a report from research group DisplaySearch.

"Adding OLED tech to flexible screens has been a long term dream for a while now," said Kimberly Allen, analyst with research firm iSuppli/Stanford Resources. "But this grant indicates that this is a serious area of research and NIST sees the merit in pursuing it."