Let's face it, the most awkward piece of personal computer hardware is that large, bulky, heavy monitor. It's hard to move around, takes up valuable desktop space, and just doesn't seem "high-tech" when stacked up against some of the other gadgets out there. Haven't you been anxiously awaiting some kind of replacement technology for quite some time now? We sure have.
Flat-panel displays are an improvement, but still are space eaters. Laptop screens have the right idea, but that technology still has some usability problems. A few years ago we read about a couple of companies that were working on holographic projection devices that would display PC output in virtual eye space. The concept was similar to the "heads-up display" you may have heard about from military attack helicopter pilots. The idea was to wear a device in front of your eyes, like goggles, with the imagery display inside the viewing area. We haven't found much about that lately. But news out of IBM's research labs may give us hope for the future.
According to Reuters, IBM researchers have created a thin, flexible kind of transistor that could one day be used to make, for instance, a computer screen that could be rolled up. Their invention is cheap and can be sprayed onto plastic, making it useful in a variety of areas. They might be able to build devices on something that is flexible. Transistors currently are made out of materials that must be processed at very high temperatures. That means they have to go onto hard, unmeltable surfaces. The new transistors are made out of very thin layers of materials that can be laid down onto a softer, pliable plastic.
Writing in the journal Science, Cherie Kagan, a materials scientist at IBM, and her colleagues describe their technique, which uses layers of both organic and inorganic chemicals. "In this material, you get the benefits of both worlds," Kagan said. "You get the benefit of an inorganic semiconductor that (conducts electricity) and an organic material that helps modulate the structure, and the combination makes them easy to handle out of solution," she added.
"It means that we can take these materials, put them in solution and spin-coat them. The idea is low-cost and makes it possible to do it at room temperature." Kagan's team used a compound called phenethylammonium tin iodide. It combines the organic compound phenethylammonium with the inorganic tin iodide, each in its own layer, in a coating thinner than a human hair. Kagan said IBM is looking to see if other metals and organic compounds will also work. She said the transistor is comparable to amorphous silicon — the glasslike version of silicon that is used in computer displays and elsewhere. It will not replace silicon chips, but definitely has great potential.
"This approach is a pretty radical idea for the industry, but it makes perfect sense to a chemist," she added. "We let nature do a lot of the work for us, using self-assembly to produce materials with the best characteristics of both worlds, organic and inorganic."
A team at Lucent Technologies Bell Labs has been working to make a plastic transistor in a similar process to IBM's — by spraying liquids onto a plastic surface. Other scientists are working on materials that could replace the lighted part of the display. Lucent and E Ink Corp., which makes "electronic ink" used in billboards and large signs, said they had teamed up to develop a low-cost "electronic paper".
They hope to produce a flexible plastic sheet that would electronically display text and images — a possible replacement for liquid crystal displays, the silver-toned screens used in digital watches, calculators and cellphones. Electronic paper uses small beads enmeshed in a flexible binder sheet. They rotate to present one side to the viewer when a pattern of electrical voltage is applied. Hang in there, perhaps soon we may finally have more space on our desktops.
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