Dutch push for flexible gadget screens

The motto could be 'let's get together and bend.' Holland's collaborative Holst Centre fuses industry and academic R&D. It's developing pliable OLEDs. Hello foldable smartphones! Won't Samsung win?

The Holst Centre, Holland's collaborative innovation lab, wants to stretch the limits of display screens.

Holland's Holst Centre, a collaborative research lab that brings together industry and academia, has launched a program to develop low-cost, energy efficient flexible screens that could usher in the era of bendable, rollable smartphones and PCs.

Holst plans to demonstrate prototypes this year of new screens based on organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), which are swatches of material that emit light went excited by a current.

"The primary objective of the new program is to develop an economically scalable route to high-volume manufacturing of flexible active-matrix OLED displays," Holst states in a recent press release.

Manufacturers already use rigid OLEDs in some high-end smartphones and tablet PCs. A flexible material would permit radical new form factors in gadgets - everything from screens that roll out of devices to PCs that fold into your pocket.

But no one has yet perfected a mass-produced a flexible screen. Samsung has said it hopes to deliver a foldable phone early this year , followed quickly by a bendy tablet PC. That would put them well ahead of Holst, if they actually deliver.

Curiously, Samsung is a Holst partner, so possibly it plans to deploy its own advances before sharing with others - if it's sharing its OLED knowledge at all. (Makes you wonder just how "collaborative" collaborative is. Collaborators do compete against each other, after all). Holst runs other development projects in addition to OLEDs.

Holst's press release infers that  a number of challenges remain before flexible OLEDs hit the big time.

"New materials and processes that allow for cheaper production, better quality, lower power, more robustness and more flexibility will be developed," it states.

The "lower power" hurdle is notable. It suggests flexible OLEDs do not now offer the same inherent energy advantage as standard, non-organic LEDs (or that they would eat up a cell phone battery quickly). Light bulbs built on LED chips require only about 20 percent of the electricity of traditional light bulbs. Non-organic LEDs emit pointed light from a semiconductor.

"We could really pull this off because of intense collaboration with some of our industrial partners," Paul Heremans, manager of Holst's OLED display program says in the release.  "We will demonstrate some of these display prototypes in 2012."

Eindhoven-based Holst was set up in 2005 with support from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs in former N.V. Philips facilities, and has about 30 cross-industrial partners including Samsung, Philips, Panasonic, Olympus, BASF, DuPont, Huntsman, AGFA, Merck, Bayer and others.  It's named after Gilles Holst, the first director of Philips Research.

In addition to gadgets, flexible OLEDs also augur radical innovations in architecture, construction and fashion , as designers build light sources into the fabric of buildings, furniture and clothing. Siemens recently announced improvements in the efficiency of an OLED ribbon intended less as a gadget screen, and more as a light.

With so many OLED advancements and research programs materializing, it is starting to look as though the days of folding phones and "light sofas" could indeed be just around the bend.

Photos from High Tech Campus Eindhoven

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