Electronic paper moves closer to mass-adoption:

HP joins with Arizona State University to prototype an affordable flexible electronic display
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Digital displays that can be rolled, folded like a newspaper, or bent to fit around a building or car, have been a long time coming. But they’re finally poised to make the leap from the lab to production on a mass scale.

That’s thanks to an innovation announced recently by HP and the Flexible Display Center (FDC) at Arizona State University. The team, along with FDC partners DuPont Teijin Films and E Ink, have created the first prototype of an affordable, flexible computer screen by employing a manufacturing process developed by HP Labs called Self-Aligned Imprint Lithography (SAIL).

Flexible screens – sometimes referred to as ‘electronic-paper’ – are made by layering stacks of semi-conductor materials and metals between pliable plastic sheets. The stacks need to be perfectly aligned and stay that way – a trick that’s tough to pull off when heat during manufacturing can deform the materials and when the resulting screen also needs to remain flexible. The SAIL process gets around this by ‘printing’ the semiconductor pattern on a fully composed substrate, so that the layers always remain in perfect alignment.

The technique also allows the screens to be manufactured in rolls, rather than individual sheets, making their production cost-effective for the first time. Mass production of such displays could enable a new generation of smartphones, laptops and other mobile electronic devices, as well as the long-dreamed-of electronic newspaper and wall-sized flexible signage.

“The display HP has created with the FDC proves the technology and demonstrates the remarkable innovation we’re bringing to the rapidly growing display market,” said Carl Taussig, director, Information Surfaces, HP Labs in announcing the prototype.

There’s an environmental benefit too, Tausig explained. “In addition to providing a lower-cost process,” he suggested, “SAIL technology represents a more sustainable, environmentally sensitive approach to producing electronic displays.” Indeed, flexible electronic displays use up to 90% less material by volume than conventional displays.

The new prototype is monochrome, but the HP/ASU team hopes to launch field trials of a color flexible display within three years.

The flexible display market is expected to grow from $80 million in 2007 to $2.8 billion by 2013, notes Vinita Jakhanwal, principal analyst, Small and Medium Displays, iSuppli. “Flexible electronic displays are playing an increasingly important role in the global high-tech industry,” Jakhanwal adds, “serving as the crucial enabling technology for a new generation of portable devices, including e-readers and similar products designed to combine mobility with compelling user interfaces.”