IBM promises flashy displays

It's taken almost a century, but IBM has found a better way of making liquid crystal surfaces for LCD displays, using ion beams instead of velvet cloths.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  May 6, 2001

IBM announced that its display laboratories have discovered a new technique for manufacturing computer displays that could result in screens that are of higher quality and far cheaper.

To produce LCD displays, liquid crystals must be precisely aligned. The existing process for this alignment involves rubbing a polymer substrate with a velvet cloth, which causes a pattern to which the liquid crystals align. Although the mechanics of this process are not understood, it works, and has done for nearly a hundred years since it was first discovered. LCD manufacturers have been making screens this way for twenty years, but IBM thinks it has a better way.

IBM scientists found that by depositing a thin layer of diamond-like carbon (instead of a polymer substrate), and then firing an ion gun at an angle, many of the surface carbon atoms could be pushed aside, forming atomic-scale rows. When the liquid-crystal molecules are added, they bond to an exposed carbon atom, resulting in the requisite precise alignment along the rows.

"Replacing the rubbing process has been a 'Holy Grail' of flat-panel display manufacturing," said Praveen Chaudhari, lead scientist on the project, IBM Research. "Display manufacturers told us that the single most important thing that science could do to improve their business was to invent a non-contact method for aligning liquid crystals. When our new process is successfully integrated in manufacturing, it will enable new generations of displays that are higher quality and lower cost."

IBM said it is considering licensing the patented process to other manufacturers in the US$20 billion per year flat-panel display industry and expects to have converted the pilot-line it used to develop this new technique into a full-blown production line by the end of the year.

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