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Nanotechnology & MEMS Applications in Optics and Displays Lead to a Breakthrough in Wireless Device Screens, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Optics is one of the hottest fields in technology in general, with uses in a wide variety of applications including manufacturing, display systems, bar code readers and networks.  Nanotechnology promises to bring a completely new line of optical tools and instruments to the field.  Most of the research thus far into nano-optics has been in two areas:  lasers and displays.

Nanotechnology offers carbon nanotubes, which can be used as tiny diodes or light emitters, and, when packed together on a flat surface, can form an entire display for anything from a smartwatch to a large computer screen.  Theoretically, these displays could be made less expensively than LCDs, would use little power and would be thinner than the thinnest flat-panel.  The most advanced technology in this area is called Field Emission Display (FED), a self-luminescent display that can be extremely thin, draw very low power and be very bright from all angles and in all types of light.  Samsung subsidiary Samsung SDI is a leader in this field.  Early applications include high-end plasma television and computer monitors.

One of the most promising early uses of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) is in state-of-the-art displays for smartphones, GPS and other mobile devices.  A leader is Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, Inc., which now produces Mirasol brand displays.  Its displays offer extremely low power consumption (absolutely vital for advanced mobile uses), very high visibility even in bright sunlight and great flexibility in incorporating these displays into various devices.  Qualcomm uses a MEMS device consisting of two plates.  One plate is a thin film stack over a glass substrate.  The other is a reflective membrane over the substrate.  A tiny space between the plates is filled with air.  When an electric current is applied to the device, the plates are attracted to each other and light is absorbed, making the element appear black.  This is the basic building block of displays.

Another display technology utilizing MEMS is Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide (IGZO).  It is a semiconducting material that replaces amorphous silicon for the active layer of an LCD screen.  IGZO has 40 times higher electron mobility, affording smaller pixels (higher resolution) and higher reaction speed for displays.

Qualcomm markets its color display under its trademarked Mirasol brand.  Qualcomm worked with Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs to build a new fabrication facility in Longtan.  Pixtronix, another Qualcomm subsidiary, expanded its agreement with Sharp Corporation to develop and commercialize MEMS displays incorporating IGZO.  Apple’s iPad Air tablet features an IGZO panel manufactured by LG.  In late 2015, Apple, Inc. took over Qualcomm’s Mirasol display lab in Taiwan.

In addition, great strides are being made using quantum dots (nanoscale semiconductor crystals) in light-emitting devices (LEDs).  Quantum dots (QDs) emit pure, amazingly clear colors which can be altered by changing the size of their crystals.  Six-nanometer-diameter crystals (particles) emit red light while two-nanometer diameter particles emit blue.  The screen is comprised of pixels made of red, green and blue QD subpixels.  The result is a screen of startling clarity that uses less power than traditional LCD screens.  LCD technology uses a backlight that illuminates every pixel.  Dark pixels block the light, thereby wasting energy.  In contrast, QD-LCD displays emit light rather than filter it, potentially using one-30th of the power of an LCD.

QD-LED lamps provide more than 80% energy savings and last up to 25 times longer than comparable halogen lighting.  QD Vision, Inc. , a nano-optics startup based in Massachusetts, introduced a 55-inch quantum dot TV in June 2015.  Sony’s BRAVIA brand LCD TVs had several models with the technology.

Yet another cutting-edge technology on the horizon utilizes zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowires to easily manufacture light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are used to light displays in cellphones and a wide variety of other equipment, as well as imaging and chemical sensing.  ZnO emits light well, making it a better choice for LEDs than gallium nitride which has been used in LEDs since the 1990s.  Researchers at the University of California at San Diego recently created “p-type” ZnO nanowires by treating ZnO crystals with phosphorus vapor.  This technique and the materials required are less expensive than those used for gallium nitride LEDs, which opens the door for far greater uses of LEDs.

Researchers are working on utilizing a nanomaterial known as graphene in wireless devices.  Applications may include longer battery life, flexible and wearable devices and screens that provide haptic feedback, that is, enable the user to feel a dimensional image on the screen.  In December 2014, Nokia patented a graphene-based flexible photon battery.



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