Shedding Light on OLED Displays
What exactly are "organic light-emitting diodes," who's making them, and what challenges does this new technology face?
Sony XEL-1
Sony XEL-1’s 11-inch screen is a mere 3 mm thick and features a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio.
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March 11, 2008 by Scott Wasser

Less Costly
Although OLED production costs are high now, economies of scale and the development of production facilities should ultimately bring it down to prices that LCDs won’t be able to match. That’s because the materials and manufacturing requirements of OLED displays are inherently less expensive than those of LCD or plasma flat panels. Operating costs will also be significantly lower for OLEDs because they use less electricity. They require absolutely no backlight, which is where most of an LCD’s power consumption goes. 

More Versatile Form Factors
In addition to being substantially thinner and lighter than plasma and LCD flat panels, OLEDs displays can be delivered in an almost unimaginable variety of form factors. Because they can be manufactured on flexible substrates and don’t require the hard glass panels of LCDs or plasmas, they can be turned screens that can be rolled up like the morning newspaper, applied to clothing, and even turned into semi-transparent heads-up displays. The flexibility of their substrates also make them inherently more durable than current display technologies. Finally, once manufacturers begin producing OLED displays in great quantities, there will be no practical or economical limit to screen size.

If it sounds as though OLED technology makes for the ideal TV, you’re close. But there are a few shortcomings, although two of them should be fairly easy to resolve. The first is that OLEDs are extremely susceptible to water damage, which might limit their applications until unbreechable sealing techniques are developed. That will probably happen when CE companies overcome the second problem of developing the manufacturing infrastructure to mass produce OLED displays cost effectively.

The third problem is more serious and more challenging: Although the red and green OLED elements have lifespans comparable to LCD and plasma TVs, the blue elements currently last a maximum of about 14,000 hours in flat panel display applications. LCD and plasma displays have lifespans nearly five times that. But 14,000 hours is also three times as long as blue OLED elements lasted just a couple of years ago, so progress definitely is being made. Unless an even newer, cheaper, and better technology emerges in the very near term – and right now that doesn’t seem likely – the next big-screen TV you buy may very well be a stunning OLED display.

Sidebar: A Simplification of OLED Technology
Kodak scientists are credited with inventing OLED technology in 1987, and the company still holds patents on it. That means OLED television makers may have to pay licensing fees to Kodak to use the technology.

Although there are several variations of OLED display technology, all of them rely on the same fundamental design and principles. The display is comprised of two adjacent layers of organic molecules sandwiched by a cathode and an anode layer. This sandwich rests on a substrate, or base, material.

An electrical current is sent from the cathode to the anode layer, causing molecules in both layers to react. The reaction is primarily a movement of electrons that ultimately results in some of them replacing others and emitting light as a byproduct.

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