Polymers light up

C&I Issue 6, 2007

Many years of research and development in flexible, printed, organic (FPO) electronics, mostly based on conductive polymers, are beginning to come to fruition with the commercialisation of the fledgling sector’s first products. The manufacturing structures of the new generation of electronics will be different from the existing silicon-based technologies. Instead of being produced in billion-dollar plants or fabs (fabrication plants), mainly located in Asia, products comprising plastic semiconductors, organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) and other printable soluble components will be made in much smaller, localised, units. This will allow Europe, the US and Japan, which have been at the forefront of the R&D into the new technologies, to have a far bigger share of FPO manufacturing than the existing global electronics market.

Currently, there are around 25 European and US companies with prototype organic electronics plants, not including OLEDs, a joint study by UK consultancy Cintelliq and US market research organisation NanoMarkets has found. Four commercial-scale plants for flexible display products are also currently being planned or under construction in Europe.

Emerging clusters
Initially, organic electronics production will be centred in clusters, offering a broad spread of skills, facilities and services in materials, polymer and related chemistries and electronic manufacturing equipment. There will be a need for strong support from research institutes because more R&D activity is required to improve the properties and processing of materials in this embryonic sector.

‘It is common for clusters to be formed around technologies and it won’t be any different with organic electronics,’ explains Craig Cruickshank, principal analyst at Cintelliq. ‘The cluster phenomenon has already occurred in the Far East in electronics. It will happen in organic electronics in Europe and North America with materials, equipment and other suppliers, certain research know-how and technical skills eventually coming together in specific areas. The formation of these networks helps to speed up development of technologies.’

Some of the FPO clusters emerging in Europe already have a well-developed expertise in silicon electronics. The German state of Saxony, dubbed Silicon Saxony, now looks destined to attract a lot of FPO manufacturing investment, with its capital Dresden becoming a major production centre for organic electronics. Part of former East Germany, Saxony has the advantage of being in a developing region where manufacturing plants can attract large public sector grants.

As a result, centres of excellence in R&D in the new electronics, such as Cambridge in England and its university – which played big role in the discovery of organic electronics – could find that commercial-scale production of its innovations may have to take place elsewhere. Nonetheless, Cambridge seems likely to retain its position as a leading global centre in both discovery and development in the FPO segment, and has a number of start-ups whose commercial-scale production is done elsewhere.

Cambridge Display Technologies (CDT), a pioneer in the development of OLEDs, which was spun out from the university in the early 1990s, has its materials made in Japan by a joint venture with Sumitomo Chemical. CDT was founded by researchers at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, who hit on the discovery in 1990 that thin films of conjugated polymers could emit light – three years after a research team at Kodak in the US found similar properties in small molecule organometallic compounds.

Plastic Logic was spun out of the Cavendish Laboratory in 2000 to develop organic semiconductors from conjugated polymers. In January, it announced that it had raised $100m for the building of a plant in Dresden to make polymer-based transistor back planes for flexible displays. It was one of the largest single amounts ever raised from venture capital in Europe, let alone in organic electronics.

To emphasise Cambridge’s continued appeal as a research venue, however, Plastic Logic recently revealed that it would be increasing the size of its Cambridge staff by 50% to 90 mainly to expand its R&D activities.

‘Cambridge will still be a major knowledge cluster in the new electronics with huge resources in basic research and technological skills,’ says Cruickshank.

Production investment
Other centres with pioneering academic institutes at their core have been more successful in bringing in production investment. The UK’s University of Southampton, for example, has one of Europe’s oldest electronics departments, while close to the south coast there are facilities owned by IBM, Philips Semiconductors and Merck.

In January, university spin-out company Innos, which specialises in nanoscale technologies in silicon-based devices, agreed a deal with Netherlands-based Polymer Vision to mass manufacture a polymer rollable electronic display for mobile devices like phones and GPS products. When the unit comes onstream later this year it will be one of the world’s first to produce a thin film transistor backplane on a mass scale.

Chemical companies, which are already active or expanding in organic electronics, are strengthening their position in the fledgling sector by forging links with both research institutes and start-ups in emerging clusters. Ciba Specialty Chemicals established in January a collaboration with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the biggest contract research organisation in northern Europe, and an industrial alliance last year with Novaled, an OLEDs spin-off from Dresden University.

Because of its huge commercial potential, organic electronics should attract a growing number of chemical companies which will use ties with academia and start-ups as a platform for growth. They will be joining the established players in FPO chemicals and materials such as Merck, Dainippon Chemicals, Sumitomo, DuPont, Bayer MaterialScience, HC Stark, BASF, Cabot, Dow Corning and Degussa.

Market growth
Market researchers are predicting that the present global organic electronics market of $1-2bn/year will reach $20-30bn in 2012-2015, before rising to over $100bn around 2020 and climbing as high as $300bn by the mid-2020s.

One of the biggest markets could be mobile phones and digital cameras, where OLEDs are already being used in displays, and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are now being produced widely on a mass scale. Other potential applications include batteries, photovoltaics for solar energy, sensors, shop signage, lighting, packaging and diagnostics.

Organic electronic products will be more flexible, cheaper, lighter and more energy efficient than existing silicon-based devices. The polymer content of the materials allows the costs of manufacturing FPO products to be considerably reduced because they will be printable through a variety of existing and innovative processes. These include lithography, inkjet, flexography, gravure, roll-to-roll (R2R) and laser printing.

Furthermore the sector is being backed by increasing amounts of R&D funds, particularly from the public sector. The US Display Consortium (USDC), an industry-led public-private partnership in FPO electronics heavily supported by the US military, late last year launched an initiative to speed up the development and commercialisation of organic electronic products.

The EU’s latest seven-year R&D programme (FP7) will include a €63m allocation for organic electronics. But bigger sums are being channelled into the sector by individual EU governments. In Germany, the federal government’s education and research ministry is providing €100m over five years for OLED development, with materials and electronics companies pledging another €500m.

Around a third of the total cost of Plastic Logic’s plant in Dresden, which the company concedes will be ‘significantly higher’ than the $100m so far committed by venture capital, will be met by the public sector, including the federal and Saxony state governments. Plastic Logic’s facility, due to come onstream next year, will have an annual capacity for one million 10-inch display modules, comprising semiconductors, conductors, and insulators in polymer layers printed by inkjet and laser printers.

‘The fundamental process development work has been done at our prototype plant at Cambridge where we have been able to figure out how to scale up production from the laboratory to the industrial scale,’ says Simon Jones, vice president product development at Plastic Logic.

Another UK organic electronics start-up, MicroEmissive Displays (MED), a spin-off of Edinburgh University, is already building a commercial plant in the German city to make 6mm polymer OLED displays.

There are currently around 300 staff working in start-up businesses and research institutes in organic electronics in the Dresden area, according to Cintelliq. The Plastic Logic and MED plants will increase this number by around 170.

‘We considered 220 sites around the world for our site and fully expected that we would come up eventually with somewhere in Asia,’ says Jones. ‘In the end no other location was able to offer advantages anywhere near those of Dresden. The city’s very active microelectronics cluster provides a source of skills and research support, while the development grants were very attractive and it was able to provide a custom-built facility.’

MED also scrutinised a range of sites for its plant, including Scotland where the grants are reported to have failed to match those available in Saxony. ‘Dresden was the most suitable location for this capital intensive operation from an economic and operational perspective,’ says Bill Miller, chief executive at MED which will be retaining Edinburgh as its R&D centre.

Innos, which will be using lithographic printing techniques applied in silicon semiconductor manufacture to make Polymer Vision’s rollable display, believes its ability to adapt an existing technology with the backing of highly skilled staff won it the contract with the Dutch company.

‘By adjusting the lithography to work with polymer materials, we will be able to get the product to market much faster than if it was a completely new process,’ says Alec Reader, business development director at Innos. ‘But this adapting of the technology would not be possible without the skills sets we have in the company. We have a staff of 30, mostly PhDs, many of whom come from Southampton University.’

Other electronic clusters
Other electronics clusters are being created elsewhere in Europe around specialist research units. In Sweden, Acreo, a public-private research partnership in electronics, has combined with Linkoepings University to develop flexible printed electronics on paper substrates.

In Linz, Austria, Johannes Kepler University’s research into photonics and photovoltaics has led to the founding of a number of start-ups. One of these, NanoIdent, was due to open a plant making printed photodetectors based on organic semiconductors in March in Linz. Another offshoot from the university has become the European R&D centre of Konarka Technologies, Lowell, Massachusetts, which is likely soon to be one of the first US companies to produce on a commercial scale printable polymer solar cells.

As the FPO sector enters its commercialisation phase, researchers still have to sort out just how organic it will be. The polymers being applied to FPO products, like polyaniline, polyacetylene and the polythiophenes, such as poly diotyl-bithiophene (PDOT), still tend to reach relatively low levels of conductivity. Hence, there is a lot of R&D activity in combining more conductive inorganic materials with these polymers or in developing inorganic or metallic substances soluble enough to be printed by themselves.

‘The attraction of inorganic materials which could be printable – like zinc oxide – is that their conductivity can be 10 to 100 times higher than conductive polymers,’ explains Peter Harrop, chairman of IdTechEx, a printed electronics consultancy in Cambridge, UK. ‘But inorganic alternative can pose big problems, particularly since some of them are becoming very expensive. The printed electronics sector is moving ahead very fast but there is a lot of R&D work still to be done.’

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