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Quantumdotdisplays

Dottingtheeyes
Howtinycrystalscanimprovepicturequality

Jun16th2011| Fromtheprintedition
GOODasmoderndisplayscreensare,theycould
bealotbetter.Eventhebestliquidcrystaldisplay
(LCD)canproduceonlyaboutathirdofthe
rangeofcolourswhichthehumaneye(in
collaborationwiththebrain)canperceive.But
thatmaysoonchange,withthedeploymentin
screensofstructurescalledquantumdots.
Aquantumdotisasemiconductorcrystalafewnanometres(billionthsofametre)across
about50atomswide,inotherwords.Whenexcited,suchcrystalsemitlight.Thewavelength,
andhencethecolour,ofthislightdependsonthesizeofthedot.Largeonesemitlong
wavelengths(redlight).Smallonesemitshorterwavelengths(blue).Thoseinbetweenfillinthe
spectrumwithcolourssuchasgreen.Theplanistousethispropertytogeneratenuancesof
colourthatarebeyondtherangeofexistingLCDs.
AnLCDemploysitsliquidcrystals,acuriousformofmatterwhoseopticalpolaritycanbe
manipulatedelectronically,asminusculeshuttersthateitherpermitorforbidthepassageof
whitelight.InthemostmodernLCDsthislightisgeneratedbylightemittingdiodes(LEDs)
andisthendiffusedinaspeciallayerofthescreenbehindtheshutters.Whitelightwhich
passesthroughaliquidcrystalshutterfallsonafilterthatimposesoneoftheprimarycolours
red,greenandblueontheoutput.Bygroupingtheseshutteredfiltersinthrees,oneofeach
colour,anindividualpictureelement,orpixel,iscreated.Combiningthethreeprimariesin
differentproportionsbyvaryingtheamountoflightpassingthroughtheshuttersallowseach
pixeltoproducearangeofcolours.

Somewhere,overtherainbow
Afewyearsagoevenathirdoftherangeofhumanperceptionwasimpressive.Buttimesmove
on,andJasonHartlove,thebossofaCalifornianfirmcalledNanosys,thinkshecandobetter.
Usingquantumdots,hesays,Nanosyscanincreasethenumberofpossiblecoloursstillfurther.
TheproblemhisquantumdotsareintendedtoovercomeisthattheLEDspreferredbythe
displayscreenindustryarenotwhiteenough.Theyemitlightwhichisbiasedtowardstheblue
endofthespectrum.Thiscolourbiasisreflectedinthemixtureoffrequenciesthatformthe
pictureonthescreen.Forsomeviewers,theresultscanlookrathercold.
Nanosys'squantumdotenhancementfilm,asthecompanycallsitsproduct,usesthedotsto
tweakthespectrumfromtheLEDssothatitisclosertothatofthewhitelightthehumaneyeis
usedto.Itdoesthis,astheproduct'snamesuggests,bypassingtheLEDlightthrougha
transparentfilmpepperedwithquantumdots,whichabsorbandreemitsomeofit.
Thesedotsareoftwosizes.Thelargerreemitstheabsorbedenergyasredlight.Thesmallerre
emitsitasgreen.Thefinal,filteredimageisthusdrawnfromabroaderpalettethanis
permittedtoanexistingLCD50%broader,accordingtoNanosys.
TheotheradvantageNanosysclaimsforitstechnologyisthatitcanbefittedeasilyintoexisting
manufacturingprocesses.Itissimplyamatterofreplacingthediffuserlayerwithaquantum
dotenhancementfilm.Makingthefilmitselfiseasy,too.Thedots,composedofa
semiconductorcalledindiumphosphide,aresprayedontoatransparentplasticsheetthatis
thencoveredwithasecondsheet.Thatdone,thewholethingisheatsealed.Thefilmcan
thereforebemanufacturedcontinuouslyinareeltoreelprocessabitlikeprinting.Thiscuts
costsenormously.
Theresult,accordingtoMrHartlove,isthatcinemalikelevelsofcolourarepossibleonthe
smallscreen,too.Thatcouldleadtonewapplications,suchasprofessionalqualitycolour
photography,beingavailableontabletcomputers,mobilephonesandthelike.
TweakingtraditionalLCDsinthiswaymay,moreover,beonlythebeginningforquantumdots.
Someengineersthinkdotsmightbeusedtojumpacompletegenerationofscreentechnology.
Atthemoment,manyofthoseinthebusinessbelievethenextgenerationofscreenswillbe
madeusingdevicescalledorganiclightemittingdiodes(OLEDs).UnlikestandardLEDs,whose
lighthastobefilteredandprocessedtogetitsintensityandcolourright,OLEDswouldbemade
intopixelsdirectly,withdiodesofdifferentcompositionprovidingeachoftheprimarycolours.
OLEDscreenscanbebrighterthanLCDs,theircoloursarericheranddeeper,andthescreens
themselvesarethinnerandhavealowerpowerconsumptionallattractivepropositions.

Unfortunately,largeOLEDscreensarecostlytomakeandOLEDstendnottolastaslongas
standardLEDs.
Moredottyideas
Quantumdotsmayleaptotherescue.Indeed,theypromisetobebrightereventhanOLEDs
andmaydisplacethemcompletely.ThevalueofOLEDs,beyondtheirbrightness,isthatthe
electricitywhichpowersandcontrolsthemisturneddirectlyintothelighttheuserviews.No
filteringandprocessingofthatlightisrequired.Exactlythesamearrangementispossible,
though,withquantumdots,whichcanalsogeneratelightdirectlyfromelectricity.And,since
thecircuitryneededtorunOLEDscreenshasnowbeendeveloped,itshouldbereasonably
simpletosubstituteOLEDswithquantumdots.
EarlierthisyearresearchersatSamsungElectronicsdidpreciselythat.Theydemonstratedan
experimentalquantumdotdisplaymadeofstripsofred,greenandbluedotsonanarrayof
specialtransistorsthatpoweredandcontrolledthem.AndSamsungisnotalone.RecentlyQD
Vision,afirmbasedinMassachusettsthatusesquantumdotstowhitentheoutputofitsLED
lightingunits,showedoffaprototypequantumdotdisplaywhichitclaimsmatchedthe
efficiencyandcolourlevelsofanOLEDscreen.ThoughQDVisionsaysalotmoreworkremains
tobedonebeforethisdisplaycanbemadecommercially,itbelievesquantumdotdisplays
shouldendupbeingcheaperthanOLEDscreens.
Norarescreenstheonlyusetowhichquantumdotsmightbeput.EngineersatNanoco,a
Britishfirm,thinkthedotscouldhelpgeneratesolarpower.Thefirm'splanistoincreasethe
efficiencyofsolarcellsbytweakingtheincidentsunlightsothatitmatchesthatbestabsorbedby
suchcells.Efficiencyiscrucialinsuchcellsiftheyareevertobeasubstituteforexisting
methodsofmasspowergeneration,suchascoalandgas.
Quantumdots,then,lookasiftheyhaveabrightfuture.Muchhypehassurroundedtheideaof
nanotechnologythethoughtthatmanipulatingobjectsonscalesofabillionthofametrewill
produceusefulproducts.Sofar,theresultshavebeenlessthanspectacular.Dots,though,may
proveanexception.

Fromtheprintedition:Scienceandtechnology