Almost like watching it live
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, sporting events, concerts, and exhibitions will have to take place without an audience being physically present for the foreseeable future. Although it is not possible to completely replace the experience of being there in person, high-resolution televisions, tablets and virtual reality glasses can deliver life-like images of major events. The most promising display technology currently available uses organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), and our EMD Performance Materials business is making important contributions to its development here at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.
Next generation of displays
Of course, we don’t use displays just for entertainment. Screens have become a crucial interface between humans and machines in the digital age, and digital information first becomes visible to the human eye through displays. Most screens on the market are still based on liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, but OLED technology has increasingly stepped into the spotlight in recent years. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we've substantially advanced both of these technologies with specialty chemicals from our EMD Performance Materials business.
Many major manufacturers are already using OLEDs in their televisions and smartphones. The technology is also used in smartwatches, VR glasses and even vehicles. I’m proud to see OLEDs – manufactured using our display materials – being used in the latest iPhone or LG television, for example. After all, millions of people use these devices. And it’s foreseeable that the market will grow further. For 2020, Display Supply Chain Consultants (DSCC), an analyst firm specializing in display-based products, expects sales of devices with OLED displays to increase 14% to US$ 32 billion. Smartphones make up the lion’s share (78%) of those devices.
Precision, down to the pixel
What makes OLEDs so good and so popular? Unlike LCDs, each individual pixel in an OLED display is a self-contained light source, consisting of a stack of thin organic layers sandwiched between an anode and a cathode. The color displayed by the OLED depends on the organic materials used and how the stack is structured. The individual OLED pixels together produce the image.
Ecofriendly and bendable
But outstanding image quality is not the only – or even the primary – reason why OLED displays are the technology of the future. They also offer far lighter, thinner construction and are therefore especially well-suited for use in small, portable devices like smartphones, smartwatches and VR goggles.
The biggest innovative factor, though, has to be the fact that OLEDs can be mounted on both solid and flexible substrates, such as plastic films. That means they can turn almost any surface into a display, thereby opening up a whole new world of possibilities. Here, I’m thinking primarily of clear, foldable or even rollable displays. Until recently, such devices were only seen as prototypes at trade shows. But what once felt a lot like science fiction is now the next logical step in the development of display technology, and the first foldable smartphones are already on the market.
Within EMD Performance Materials, we are working to further enhance the energy efficiency and functionality of OLED technology. One focus of our research is manufacturing OLEDs using inkjet printers. This process is especially interesting for large, high-resolution screens as the deposition processes commonly used today are running up against technical limitations.
The inkjet process basically works the same way a regular office inkjet printer does, although the standards for the inks, design and print head control are much higher. That’s because the drops of ink that make up the diodes are tiny, with each one just 20 trillionths of a liter. That takes some real precision! But it’s worth the technical effort: Because of the exceptional picture quality and physical flexibility they offer, OLED displays will define the way we visualize information in the future. We’re excited to see where the development of innovative display technologies will take us.