Paul Heremans, imec fellow & expert in thin-film electronics
Books with moving images, curtains that give off light, glasses that show us what we aren’t able to see with our eyes, 3D images with a feel ... These are applications that appeal to our imagination but that we’ve so far only encountered in fantasy and science-fiction. However, there is a promising technology – thin-film electronics – in which we might actually create these wonders for real. The first prototypes and products are already here, but there is still a long way to go before we can profit from the full potential of this technology. Imec’s scientists are at the cutting edge of research and together we are working on the next revolution in consumer electronics.
Thin-film electronics are created by applying thin layers of suitable materials onto flexible carriers such as plastic films. In contrast to silicon chip manufacturing, this process has fewer steps and can be done on larger surfaces and at a lower temperature, so it has the potential to be considerably cheaper. What also makes flexible electronics promising is that we will soon be able to integrate it directly into smart applications with random, flexible shapes. This will bring us lots of new and unusual products, such as smart body plasters, informative packaging or flexible displays.
In fact, this last application – the display – is one of the first successful commercial applications of thin-film technology. These AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) displays are made up of an active matrix of organic pixels, tiny LED lamps made from organic, printable materials that light up when power is applied. This matrix sits on top of a second matrix of thin-film transistors that function as switches to turn the pixels on and off.
Until not so long ago, most mobile phones and smart watches still had LCD displays. But recently, AMOLED displays have started gaining track. The rivalry between the two technologies long seemed undecided, but because AMOLED displays are super-thin and can be produced in a curved shape, they finally appear to be gaining the upper hand.
We expect to see the first foldaway display used in a product in 2018 – most probably in a smartphone. It has been talked about for years and the various manufacturers have demonstrated dozens of prototypes, but the challenge of incorporating such a fragile screen into a consumer product has always been too great. Now it appears the technology is finally ready.