Flat panel displays and organic semiconductors

Plastic electronics offers the possibility of making devices like flat screen displays, solar cells and logic circuits from semiconducting polymers, exploiting low-cost polymer processing techniques to make devices cheaply, in very large areas, on flexible substrates. But the existing technologies with which these would-be disruptive technologies are competing are also evolving very fast. It is in this context that the news that Covion Organic Semiconductors has been bought by the German chemical company Merck (press release here), for 50 million euros in cash is rather interesting. Covion is one of the few companies that has been attempting to make a business making the semiconducting polymers that will be used in flat-panel displays from light emitting polymers, while Merck is the world’s largest producer of the liquid crystals used in flat panel liquid crystal displays.

This news led to a little bit of interest in the chemical industry trade press, as another part of the process in which the privately held speciality chemical company Avecia is gradually being liquidated. Covion was wholly owned by Avecia, and the deal includes Avecia’s research effort in organic semiconductors. But there are a couple of lessons for nanotechnology businesses to learn here .

The first is simply how difficult it can be for new technologies to catch up with the rapid, incremental development of existing technologies. You don’t need a lot of research to see how rapidly the liquid crystal display industry has been developing; a few trips to the mall suffice to convince one that liquid crystal display TVs, which only a few years ago were an expensive curiosity, are plummeting in price and growing in area. Thus two out of the three main potential advantages of polymer light emitting diode displays – cost, and the ability to make large areas – are rapidly eroding. As the Merck Chairman Bernhard Scheuble is quoted as saying in the press release ,“It is apparent that liquid crystal displays will be the dominant flat-panel technology for some years to come … We see this acquisition as an opportunity to explore alternative technologies for the future, which is a prudent step for any market leader.”

It’s also interesting to look at Merck’s liquid crystal business, with which Covion will be integrated. Although this probably wouldn’t be generally recognised as a nanotechnology business, and it is certainly not described as one by Merck, it has some features that make it rather a good model for successful nanotech firms in the future. Its major product is a class of molecules whose value depends on the rather subtle nanoscale arrangements these molecules take up, and the way in which those arrangements are altered by interactions with a nanostructured surface and with applied fields. The business is large – sales are in excess of half a billion euros – but the physical quantity of material produced is tiny. I’d guess that the total annual world production of liquid crystals is less than one hundred tonnes, an amount that would fit into a couple of double garages. Most of us have some of this product in our houses, in our offices, in our cell-phones and laptops, but in miniscule quantities. And the business is stunningly profitable, with a return on sales of more than 50%. Why should it not be so? They’re selling combinations of mostly carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen for a huge price which reflects, not the cost of the material or the cost of production, but the cost of the research and development, and the functional value that a tiny amount of the material can add to a desirable product.

3 thoughts on “Flat panel displays and organic semiconductors”

  1. No, OLEDs are the future because they can ultimately be made in a web (roll-to-roll) process. LCDs cannot be made in this manner. Also, we had developed a spray deposition process for Covion’s large polymers, which were used as liquid-based feedstock. No vacuum chamber is required. The problem with LCDs is that the materials they use must be deposited in high-vacuum environment, which is inherently expensive. With our process, OLED materials can be deposited in atmospheric environment.

    Covion is one company that makes these materials. H.W. Sands (in U.S.) is another. our process is called Nano Vapor deposition (NVD) and it is a novel spray deposition technique that can spray on thin films down to 50nm thickness with good uniformity.

    You can see brief description of NVD on my website at http://www.metatechnica.com.

  2. Kurt, interesting to hear your perspective, and I hope you’re right. Maybe half of my research effort at the moment is devoted to understanding the relationships between processing, nanoscale morphology and device performance in semiconducting polymer systems, so the low-cost processing aspects of plastic electronics is a subject I think a lot about (we have, for example, developed a new instrument for following the development of morphology in semiconducting polymer blends in real-time during the spin coating process, just published in Macromolecules). But, on the other hand, I’ve been following the OLED story since it began, and I think at the time of its invention no-one had any idea just how far the LCD industry would come.

  3. Richard, I think that you are right that it is usually easier (and cheaper) to extend the performance and drop the cost of existing technology than it is to develop a new technology from the ground up. OLEDs are difficult to develop because you’re working with materials noone has worked with before and this is usually hard. The biggest problem that I know of in OLEDs is the operating lifetime of the materials, which still have a way to go before they catch up with LCDs. Also, the LCD makers keep going to larger and larger substrates (the Japanese are working with substrates that are 3-4 meters on a side). I think that you are right that LCDs will be around for sometime to come.

    I have alot of experience with high vacuum process equipment and deposition processes. High vacuum processing is inherently expensive. If OLEDs can be as reliable as LCDs and be made by roll-to-roll process, LCDs will definitely go away, due to manufacture cost.

    I think this is true for nanotechnology in general. If it offers cost reduction in manufacturing as well as performance increase, it will displace other manufacturing processes.

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