Periodic visitors to the TV section of large electronics stores are usually impressed by how display technology constantly improves. At each new visit, the screens are larger, thinner, brighter, and often cheaper than they were during the previous trip to the shop a year or two earlier.
Visitors to a store today will see that more than two-thirds of TV screens on the market are now larger than 40 inches. They’ll notice that Samsung and a few other firms are pushing a technology called quantum dots that seems to enhance colors and brightness. At some point, a TV model promoted by LG might attract attention, but perhaps more for its higher price than the performance improvement it offers. Alone among its competitors, LG manufactures a line of TVs making use of organic light-emitting diode technology.
Long the focus of research at academic and corporate labs worldwide, OLED displays are starting to trickle into the market. Although they currently represent only a small slice of the total pie and are so far mostly used in mobile phones, OLEDs are poised to rapidly gain market share in the coming years.
This growth will open up billions of dollars of market opportunity for chemical companies that supply materials to the electronics industry. But at the same time, such firms are keen to hold on to the business they have with makers of displays based on incumbent liquid-crystal display, or LCD, technology.
“The OLED display industry is at tipping point,” says David K. Flattery, business development manager for OLEDs at DuPont. “LG is the only producer of OLED TVs currently, but several others are building pilot plants, and we expect a few to proceed with commercialization.”
Like DuPont, market research firms expect the market for OLED displays—in both TVs and smaller devices such as smartphones—to grow significantly. IDTechEx, for example, forecasts that global sales of OLED displays will increase from $16 billion this year to $42 billion in 2020. Samsung, which uses OLEDs in its Galaxy smartphones, is currently the top manufacturer of OLED displays. But others, such as LG, are entering the market, lured by what OLED technology makes possible.
“OLED displays can be lighter, they can be flexible, and they allow designers more leeway with the shape of their devices,” says Guillaume Chansin, senior technology analyst at IDTechEx. Theoretically, he adds, OLEDs can be far more energy-efficient than the LCDs found in most TVs today. And because they are now manufactured on a plastic substrate instead of a glass one, “OLED displays can make phone screens shatterproof, or even foldable.”
The promise of OLEDs has generated much interest among researchers for decades. In an LCD, images are generated by a backlight—a light-emitting diode nowadays—that sends light through liquid crystals, polarizers, color filters, and several image-enhancing filters. The color black in an LCD is created not by turning off the backlight but by electro-orienting the liquid crystals to affect the angle at which the passing light hits the polarizers.
OLED displays are much simpler and thus can be far thinner than LCDs. Instead of a backlight, OLEDs feature pixels that individually emit the red, green, and blue lights required to form an image. OLEDs consist of organic molecules positioned between two electrodes. As current flows from the cathode to the anode, electrons and electron holes in the molecules combine, emitting flashes of light.