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Intel moves into flat panels

The chip giant invests in an English company working on a new technology that would allow for lighter and cheaper flat panel displays.

Intel (INTC) will invest in Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), a Cambridge, England-based company working on a new technology that would allow for lighter and cheaper flat panel displays.

CDT announced today that Intel, the world?s largest manufacturer of microprocessors, is investing an undisclosed amount of money in the company, joining an all-star list of investors that includes president of EDventure Holdings and technology pundit Esther Dyson, rock band Genesis, and Power Computing founder Steve Kahng.

The broad category of flat panel displays includes technologies such as liquid crystal and plasma displays. Generally, these displays are much thinner and lighter than bulky desktop cathode ray tube (CRT) displays.

What has attracted the attention of Intel and the other investors, as well as researchers around the world, is a technology called LEP, or light emitting polymer. LEPs are a class of semiconductors consisting of a special kind of plastic material that emits light when an electrical charge is applied to them. By comparison, with an LCD screen, when an electric current is applied to the pixels, they act like a shutter, allowing light to pass through to form an image.

Displays made with the LEP technology have the potential to displace LCD screens used in notebooks and even traditional desktop monitors due to some unique features of the technology, according to industry analysts.

"LEP displays are relatively easy to make and the materials are low-cost; the displays require significantly less power than traditional LCD displays (a must for portable applications; and the company [CDT] is working on full-color displays," all of which are highly attractive to the display industry, said Dave Mentley, vice president of Stanford Resources. Stanford Resources is a market research firm specializing in display technologies.

LEP displays can be made using a single piece of glass, whereas LCD displays typically utilize two sheets of glass with a liquid crystal solution between them. LEP displays can be up to one-third thinner than LCDs and cost up to 40 percent less to make as a result, according to CDT. LEP displays also have a wider viewing angle than LCD screens and use less power because they don?t need a source of light from behind the screen.

"It's actually one of the most interesting display phenomena to come along in a few years. But it's also not right around the corner," added Mentley.

Currently, LEP displays lack the longevity and color capabilities of LCD screens required for notebooks, admitted Mark Gostick, director of marketing for CDT. But by mid-1998, the screens are expected to find their initial application as backlights in devices such as cell phones, handheld PCs, VCRs, and other devices.

CDT is working solely on advancing the technology, while several licensees are working to manufacture the displays. Prototype screens for use in notebooks are being developed by a "large Japanese display manufacturer," according to Gostick, and could be ready by 2004. Stanford?s Mentley agrees with CDT?s timetable for LEP notebook screens.

Meanwhile, LCD screen technologies that will help notebooks shed weight continue to emerge. Companies continue to work on a display technology called low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) for manufacturing active-matrix notebook screens. The technology allows notebook screens to display more information at any given size with more brightness than current LCDs, which use a technology called amorphous silicon.

The LTPS screens also are lighter and can cost as much as 60 percent less than their older counterparts. Today's notebooks still use the older technology because the LTPS screens are more difficult to manufacture. The only companies making these screens are Sony and Sanyo, which are using 2- to 3-inch screens in digital still and video cameras.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.