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Nanosys promises better color in TVs, digital devices

The Silicon Valley company has crafted a thin film laden with minuscule particles that can be placed inside a display to dramatically boost the color range it can show.

November 20, 2011|By Troy Wolverton
  • Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove holds the company's Quantum Dot Enhancement Film at his office in Palo Alto. Nanosys expects the first devices containing its color-boosting technology  probably tablets or notebook computers  to hit store shelves in the first half of next year.
Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove holds the company's Quantum Dot Enhancement… (Karen T. Borchers, San Jose…)

Reporting from San Jose — Televisions, computer monitors and smartphones display only a fraction of the colors the human eye can see. But thanks to a new technology developed by a Silicon Valley nanotechnology company, they may soon get a lot more colorful.

Nanosys, which works with materials up to 100,000 times thinner than a human hair, has crafted a thin film laden with minuscule particles that can be placed inside a display to dramatically boost the color range it can show.

"Around 30% of what the eye can actually perceive in the real world, your TV can reproduce faithfully," said Jason Hartlove, chief executive of the Palo Alto company. "That's pretty limited. Everything is pretty dull and washed out compared to reality."

He said his company's technology can in effect double that range of color.

Samsung Electronics Co., a leading television and display maker, was impressed enough to invest in Nanosys last year. It and LG Electronics Inc., another big display maker, are Nanosys partners.

With their backing and the interest of other major TV makers, Nanosys expects the first devices containing its technology — probably tablets or notebook computers — to hit store shelves in the first half of next year. Televisions with its technology are expected to hit the market by the end of next year.

"It seems very close" to being ready for use in actual products, said Paul Semenza, an analyst at DisplaySearch, a market research company that focuses on the digital display industry. "It strikes me as something that is feasible to implement today."

The vast majority of televisions sold today are LCDs. Among those, a growing portion use LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, for backlighting. LEDs have caught on because they are smaller, longer-lived and more efficient than fluorescent lamps, which is the alternative lighting source. LEDs have enabled manufacturers to make big-screen televisions that are as thin as a finger.

LED-backlighted displays are the dominant kind in mobile phones, tablets and notebook computers.

The problem with LEDs is that by themselves, they don't emit a wide color range. Instead, each kind of LED emits a single color of light, and none emit pure white. To create white light from LEDs, manufacturers usually cover blue LEDs with a phosphor coating.

But the white light emitted by such LEDs typically doesn't include much red or green light. The result is that LED-backlit televisions can't reproduce deep greens or reds; instead, those colors tend to be more yellow or blue than they are in real life.

Hartlove said the phosphor coating applied to the LEDs can't be tuned to emit precise wavelengths of light but that Nanosys' technology, called quantum dots, can.

Nanosys has developed a way of producing nano-size crystals that, when struck by a photon of light from a blue LED, will emit a photon of a particular wavelength, such as a specific shade of red or green. The company has come up with a process of mass-producing nanocrystals of particular sizes, embedding them in a solution and then coating a thin sheet of film with it.

Light passing through the sheet emerges in shades of pure red, green and blue, which can be used to create a wide range of colors or pure white. And depending on the tastes of manufacturers or their customers, Nanosys can produce crystals that generate slightly different shades of red or green.

"If it's desired to have an exact red color, we can make a phosphor that has exactly that peak color output," Hartlove said.

The display business is highly competitive and television manufacturers in particular are always looking for some kind of edge to help their products stand out in the crowd. Offering displays with more lifelike color could be one of those ways, analysts say.

"I suspect this is going to roll out pretty widely," said Ken Werner, principal at Nutmeg Consultants, which offers consulting services to the display industry. "They need a way to stimulate customer interest."

Analysts are divided on how much consumers really care about the color range produced by their TVs or smartphones. Last year, Sharp started offering televisions with a slightly broader color range using a technology called Quattron. But the new TVs have done little to improve the company's poor market position.

"I just don't know if people are going to pay for this in droves," said Steve Buehler, an analyst at market research firm IDC. "It really comes down to pricing.... If it's a $10 or $20 bump, yeah, it will take off like crazy. If it's $50 or $100, not so much."

Wolverton writes for the San Jose Mercury News/McClatchy.

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