Screen manufacturers turn up the volume on environmental production
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Screen manufacturers turn up the volume on environmental production

Energy costs are rising and carbon taxes are on the way. Screen manufacturing requires a lower carbon, more energy efficient system.

As electricity prices rocket and a range of new carbon taxes come into force, display makers are looking to reduce the energy required to manufacture their screens.

The European Union’s carbon import tax launches in 2026, with importers initially charged for the carbon content of materials such as iron, steel, and cement. This will be expanded to a broader range of goods over coming years and consumer electronics are likely to be a prime target. Other jurisdictions are set to follow suit and manufacturers of smartphones, tablets and TVs face a steep rise in taxes unless they can reduce the amount of energy used in making their products.

Carbon taxes are part of a worldwide effort to force down carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, which commits signatories – most of the world’s nations – to reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century to prevent global warming rising more than 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels.

Every industry is expected to play its part in reaching net zero and the display sector is no exception. Apple, maker of iPhones, iPads, smart watches and MacBooks, is already carbon neutral in its operations and has pledged that by 2030, every Apple device sold will have net zero carbon impact. Samsung, which makes Galaxy phones, tablets, TVs and a range of displays, has committed to net zero carbon emissions for operations in its Device eXperience division, responsible for visual displays, by 2030 and across all operations by 2050. LG has also a 2050 net zero commitment.

With the costs of electricity and gas soaring over the past two years after supply chain disruption following Covid and rocketing prices due to the Ukraine war, reducing energy consumption in manufacturing has gained added urgency.

Most of the displays made today, whether LCD or OLED, are built using energy-hungry processes involving inorganic thin film transistor technology.

The manufacturing process requires a substrate to be heated to about 360 degrees Celsius in a vacuum in order to deposit the required dielectric materials on to the screen’s backplane. To get a whole chamber containing a three-by-three metre piece of glass from room temperature up to 360 degrees Celsius at speed – within a cycle of time of about 90 seconds – is highly energy intensive. In this process, the dielectric is melded on to the backplane then the glass is cut up into pieces to create the right sized screens.

The high temperatures require huge energy input which is costly given soaring electricity prices and will be paid for through steeper carbon taxes.

A low-energy alternative to using the “plasma enhanced chemical vapour deposition” (PECVD) chamber is to use a solvent which is coated on to the substrate.

The solvent can be coated in a very thin layer, then the excess material is evaporated away at a temperature of about 100 degrees Celsius. This greatly reduces the energy used, saving on electricity costs and reducing carbon emissions.

This is the process pioneered by Smartkem. As the company’s chief technology officer Simon Ogier explains: “Smartkem is currently working with a number of Taiwanese display companies who are looking to try and reduce the use of these PECVD processes for putting down the dielectrics. Even if we can just reduce one of one of the layers by putting in a polymeric dielectric, then that will help the display industry,” says Ogier.

And he adds: “The margins on these screens are incredibly slim between the cost of production and the how much you can sell it for. So there’s this fierce competition to try and reduce production costs all the time, because there’s huge competition in China, South Korea, Taiwan, and in Japan – though the display industry is much smaller there than it used to be. So, these very slim margins do make a difference,” he says.
Alongside cost and energy savings, another advantage of the lower temperature process is that the substrate does not have to be made of a rigid material such as glass in order to bear the heat. Lower temperatures allow for the use of flexible substrates which can be biodegradable such as those derived from starch-based materials.

This allows for the creation of biodegradable display components, which helps with disposal of products at the end of their life. This will come in useful for the Internet of Things, which will require trillions of tiny sensors attached to everyday objects in the built environment, all emitting data. These sensors will be difficult to collect at the end of life given their huge numbers, so having a biodegradable substrate for these chips could solve the problem.

The low-temperature process pioneered by Smartkem could also become pivotal in the manufacture of micro-LED screens. These use thousands of tiny LEDs and can be manufactured using the Smartkem method.

“I think that we can make a very big difference in micro-LEDs,” says Ogier. “That’s the primary marketplace we’re looking at. That will take some years because micro-LED manufacturing is still in its infancy. So far, there are a few very niche products out there.”

Ogier believes micro-LED displays will become widespread and Smartkem’s process will eventually become one of the mainstream choices for manufacturing the backplanes.

And he adds: “On a shorter timescale, then this kind of dielectric replacement activity will replace these inorganic dielectrics deposited at high temperature with lower-temperature organic dielectric. We hope to be able to make inroads into that in the next one to three years by providing materials that people can start to integrate into manufacturing processes.”

As energy costs climb and cutting carbon becomes vital, Smartkem’s process using solvents to lay down the transistor layer for screens looks set to gain greater uptake across the industry.