Electronics have thus far centered on silicon, but recent years have seen big advances in the use of organic substances to produce components that process electrical signals. These substances are inexpensive and can even be printed to produce such things as smart labels for yogurt containers. The launch of a new masters program underscores the significance of this up-and-coming technology.
Displays made of organic light-emitting diodes — also known as OLEDs — are now finding more and more uses. Whereas these flat screens were initially limited to the displays of certain cell phones and car radios, they are now making inroads into the TV market as well. Indeed, TV manufacturers have already unveiled OLED monitors with a diagonal of over 30 inches.
Compared to conventional liquid crystal displays (LCDs), OLED displays can offer enhanced contrast and lower energy consumption. The current LCD architecture is based on rigid sheets of glass and is therefore neither flexible nor lightweight enough for applications such as rollup screens in movie-theater format or large-area light-emitting wallpaper. Realizing this kind of application will require a new approach, one that can only come from the field of organic and printed electronics. This technique enables the low-cost production of thin, lightweight, and flexible electronic components such as sensors, circuits, photovoltaic cells, and OLEDs. It is thus opening up a whole new range of applications alongside the established field of silicon-based electronics.
Printed OLEDs are components where the functional layer is applied to a substrate by means of a printing process. The functional layers can have conductive, insulating or even luminiferous properties. Printing processes are usually more cost effective and can be used with larger formats than other processes typically used in the semiconductor industry. Experts are therefore predicting high growth rates for OLED technology. According to an analysis conducted by DisplaySearch, one of the world's leading market research companies for display technologies, revenues in the organic and printed electronics sector alone are set to reach as much as $6 billion by 2018.
As a market leader in the production of liquid crystals, Merck has been pushing the development of printed OLEDs for many years now. In recent times, the company has also stepped up its involvement in research alliances. "The end product is so complex," explains Dr. Thomas Geelhaar, Chief Technology Officer of the Chemicals business sector, "that we have to cooperate with other companies."
One of the most important of these research clusters is the "Organic Electronics Forum," which was awarded funding of €40 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in fall 2008. The companies and universities involved in the research cluster are looking to develop processes for the mass production of organic and printed electronic components. Merck is leading the research here into OLEDs and printed organic circuits.