Motorola builds nanotube-based display

Company produces prototype of color display that uses carbon nanotubes, saying design is better than current flat-panel technology.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Motorola has built a working prototype of a new color display that uses numerous tiny filaments called carbon nanotubes, a design the company argues is superior to existing flat-panel technology.

Joining the current fashion for touting nanotechnology, Motorola calls the design a nano-emissive display. The Schaumberg, Ill.-based company doesn't plan to make the displays on its own, but the technology is now available for others to license, said Vida Ilderem, director of Motorola's Embedded Systems and Physical Sciences center.

"This is the first milestone that shows we can make carbon nanotubes work for nano-emissive displays," Ilderem said.

Carbon nanotubes are composed of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons.

Nanotubes, hollow columns of carbon atoms, are a relatively recent creation with unusual electrical properties and are potentially useful in the computing industry. Nanotubes are a new component in an existing technology Motorola and others have been investigating for years called field emission displays.

Motorola's prototype measures 4.7 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 128 by 96 pixels, she said. The prototype is "designed to be a piece of a 42-inch high-definition television" screen, which has resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels, she said.

Conventional cathode ray tube, or CRT, displays sweep a beam of electrons across a screen coated in phosphor particles that glow when excited by the electrons. Motorola's NED uses an array of tiny carbon nanotubes to fire the electrons.

A tricky part of manufacturing is attaching the nanotubes to a glass substrate. Motorola uses a catalyst to precisely position where it wants nanotubes to grow perpendicularly from the glass, Ilderem said.

The display technology could be in production in two years if display makers adopt it aggressively, she added. Converting a liquid crystal display, or LCD, facility to NED manufacturing would require about half its equipment to be replaced, while a plasma display facility would require about a quarter to be replaced, she said.

Motorola has high hopes for the technology compared both to existing flat-panel displays and to the older but still superior CRT displays.

Among favorable attributes of Motorola's new displays: They're bright enough to be seen in daylight, they respond as quickly as CRTs, their colors are almost as good as CRTs and they can be viewed from a wide range of angles. And they're "much less expensive" to build than current displays because fewer steps are required in the manufacturing process, Ilderem said.