Breakthrough in technology will reduce the cost of high definition, low-power displays

Researchers are planning to dominate the display market in ten years’ time with a technique that can be used on any device from...

Researchers are planning to dominate the display market in ten years’ time with a technique that can be used on any device from large-screen TVs to digital cameras.


Research teams from three UK universities – the University of Dundee, Napier University in Edinburgh and the University of Surrey – are collaborating on a project to develop an improved and cheaper display alternative to LCDs.


The high-resolution, flat-panel display the research teams are working on could also help extend battery life on laptop PCs and cut the cost of electronic products.


Currently, devices such as notebooks use a combination of thin-film transfer technology and liquid crystal displays. However, LCDs are both power-hungry and expensive to produce.


The new form of display being developed by the universities uses a technology called field emission display (FED), and could provide a low-cost, low-power, high-performance alternative to LCDs. Mervyn Rose, the man behind the two-year old research project, said, “The aim is to use one quarter less power than an LCD.”


Rose, who is a reader in physics at the University of Dundee’s department of electronic engineering and physics, believed that the project, as well as extending battery life, could eventually bring broader cost reductions; mainly because FEDs are cheaper to produce than traditional LCDs.


Unlike thin film transfer (TFT) displays, FEDs are effectively tiny, flat cathode-ray tubes. The technology works by using a two-dimensional electron source and a phosphor material to emit the light, which creates the image. However, development of FEDs has been held back until now by the sheer complexity of the manufacturing process.


Overcoming this problem has been a focus of Rose’s research. By using thin-film amorphous silicon and laser processing techniques, the three universities are now able to make an FED that avoids the need for lithography, the complex and expensive technique used today in the production of TFT displays.


The end result should be a high-brightness, high-resolution FED that can be driven by substantially less power than existing displays, according to Rose. He said, “The main benefit of this is that it will give a very low-power display that is very stable and uniform.”


Rose said, “The most important benefit for IT managers will be a dramatic reduction in the cost of a display when compared to an LCD.”


Rose, whose previous research work covered memory devices, x-ray sensors and solar cells, said FEDs could be used in a number of areas, notably as an alternative to flat-screen plasma TVs.


“Potentially, you can use this technology for anything from miniature displays on digital cameras to large-screen TVs, notebooks and medical and aircraft displays,” he said.


Along with cheaper manufacturing, FEDs promise to deliver far crisper and more colourful images than is possible on a TFT display. The viewing angle for FEDs will be equivalent to the 180 degrees offered by cathode ray tubes. In contrast, the viewing angles offered by LCDs vary greatly.


Rose also aims to shorten the time it will take the new technique to appear on the  market. He said, “Displays usually take a long time to make it to the market – sometimes up to 15 years – but we aim to cut that dramatically as we have found a way to simplify the manufacturing process.”


As FEDs can be manufactured with existing technologies, users will only have to wait five to 10 years before FEDs are deployed on devices such as notebooks and flat-screen TVs, Rose said.


So far, teams from Dundee and Napier have received a total of  £200,000 as  “proof of concept” funding from Scottish Enterprise to develop the project.


The fund, which is now in its fourth year, currently supports 120 projects worth over £19m which have already created 290 new jobs in Scotland.


The next stage for the universities involved in the research project is to forge closer links with industry. Rose said, “We now plan to spin out some form of commercial venture for the research project, which will enable us to work more closely with the private sector.

“We are aiming to make a robust demonstrator device that we can show to industry,” he added.


Benefits of FEDs


According to research at the three universities, field emission displays (FEDs) should offer distinct advantages over liquid crystal displays (LCDs), including:

  • Lower power
  • High definition images
  • Lower production costs.


Connect Scotland


Connect Scotland is a non-profit-making organisation founded in 1996 to nurture the creation, development and growth of emerging technology companies.


It provides a nationwide support infrastructure which brings together universities, venture capitalists, banks and technology experts, as well as corporates, local enterprise companies, lawyers and  individuals with specific management or sector experience.

A spin-off of the University of Edinburgh, Connect Scotland is supported by all 14 of Scotland’s universities.


Getting wired: you tell us the future


Research work being undertaken at universities today will change the way we use IT in the future. Computer Weekly is on a mission to showcase their cutting-edge IT research.


Each week, we will feature an innovation in the field of IT, giving a glimpse of how technology will evolve in the coming years. If you think you might have made a breakthrough in the field of technology, e-mail [email protected]

Read more on PC hardware