POLYMER ELECTRONICS ARE ON A ROLL

The physical limitations of silicon have long been a concern for innovators creating groundbreaking IP for next-generation electronic devices. Many innovators and early adopters that I speak to have predicted that 2008 will be the year that organic (or polymer) electronics really takes off, so it’s crucial that the industry prepares right now.

Advances in organic electronics (based on semiconducting polymers) have already seen several firms secure pilot line production contracts in 2007 to produce the first devices for eventual sale. Polymer electronics’ inherent low production cost, portability, aesthetics, and ultimately the capacity for formable logic and storage circuits, ensures cheaper devices in many applications, particularly in the mobile device market.

FLEXIBILITY

The sheer flexibility of polymer electronics can and will ultimately change the market. Semiconducting polymers lend themselves to the fabrication of flexible displays, a market that electronics industry analysis firm EMSNow predicts will reach a value of around $60 million by the year 2013.

Meanwhile, rollable display technology uses many of the same components and characteristics of flexible displays, but requires a far greater degree of curvature and resilience than is typically needed for a flexible display. The development of prototype rollable displays for mobile devices has led to the signing of commercial deals to produce the first range of product applications in the race to retailers’ shelves. These rollable displays (some able to challenge the circumference of a pencil when completely rolled) have enabled the future production of integrated screens for mobile devices that are physically quite a bit larger than the device itself.

NON-EMISSIVE TECHNOLOGY

Displays of this nature require an appropriate front plane and back plane to gain this high flexibility. So far, developments are heavily dominated by nonemissive technology (i.e., light is reflected or absorbed as opposed to emitted), with the prime incentive being its low energy consumption.

Consumers of mobile devices increasingly expect maximum functionality and longer battery life. Non-emissive screens combat this by using low current to generate and therefore extend the time before the need to charge the battery.

ELECTROPHORESIS

For example, one of the key front-plane technologies is electrophoresis, which allows the separation of black and white particles within individual pixel cells in a display according to their size and charge. (Specific arrangements of pixel cells will give way to full-colour displays). Coupling this with a mature technology such as organic TFT (thin film transistor) for the flexible backplane could see it become one of the most effective methods of creating a rollable display.

There is, of course, huge potential for the growth of emissive front-plane technology (such as OLED), which unlike nonemissive requires no backlight to view in low-light conditions. That’s because it uses light-emitting photons.

Typically, this technology is far more suited to devices or consumer products using a mains power source, since it’s relatively power-hungry. It’s not particularly suitable for mobile devices (when compared with non-emissive displays), however, since the lifetime of some materials and batteries may not sustain intensive everyday use. The outlook for polymer electronics is indeed an exciting

one. Columbia News Service has predicted that the market as a whole will reach approximately €18,500 million in 2012 and IDTechEx almost €3.2 billion in 2025. Consequently, 2008 could be the year that the technology starts seeing substantial revenues.

See associated figure.

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