Smartkem Year Ahead (2023)
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Smartkem Year Ahead (2023)

Smartkem turns up the volume as demand for its revolutionary technology increases and lockdowns end.

Ian Jenks, Smartkem’s chairman and chief executive, looks at what lies in store during 2023

As the New Year gets underway, Smartkem chairman and chief executive Ian Jenks shares his views on what’s looking hot for the company in 2023 and what lies ahead in the world of screens.

With lockdowns ending, the metaverse expanding and the display market ripe for disruption, Ian believes 2023 will be a pivotal year for Smartkem’s transformational technology.

Speaking from his converted farmhouse in a valley near to the French city of Avignon, Ian says that he is expecting Smartkem’s TRUFLEX® inks to start having a transformational impact on the display industry. And he is optimistic that the end of Covid lockdowns in the Far East will provide a boost for the company.

“COVID has set back our ability to deliver our technology given the difficulties of travelling in the Far East,” he says. “But they are finally opening up, and since we’ve been able to travel to Taiwan we’ve made huge progress.” Further progress is expected as China and Korea continue to open up.

This is good news for Smartkem’s partnership with Taiwanese company RiTdisplay, which plans to use TRUFLEX® inks to create electronic circuits for a new generation of high-quality displays. These will be embedded in white goods such as washing machines and microwaves, giving information and instructions.

Whether in kitchen appliances, smartphones or VR headsets, screens are increasingly dominating our lives and the potential for Smartkem’s semiconductor technology to become an essential component of display manufacture is set to grow. With the technology industry rushing to build the metaverse, a new generation of low cost, high-quality headsets and other screens will be required to bring this three-dimensional virtual world to life. TRUFLEX® inks offer a way to coat the organic thin film transistors that power these screens on to low-cost substrates, revolutionising production methods with efficient, low-cost and low temperature processes.

The world of screens today – whether mobiles, laptops or TVs – is dominated by two technologies.

Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) use crystals to act as on/off switches for a light source from a backlight. The crystals are controlled by an electronic circuit of organic thin film transistors (OTFTs) on a layer known as a backplane. LCDs have faced competition over recent years from a higher quality technology, Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) displays, where light is emitted directly from a film of chemical such as phosphorous and no backlight is needed.

OLEDs still need the layer thin film transistors on the backplane to control the light emissions.

LCD screens are cheaper to manufacturer than OLEDs, helping them to secure 75% of the display market, while OLEDs, which offer higher quality and contrast, are more expensive and take 25% of the market.

The display market is ripe for disruption by Smartkem’s technology. The company has a process for coating organic thin film transistors (OTFTs) on to the circuits that control the images using TRUFLEX® solutions.

“The battle between LCD screens and OLED screens is heating up,” says Ian. “OLED is trying to drive down prices to compete with the top end of LCDs and LCDs are trying to find ways to make the performance and visual experience better to compete with OLEDs on quality.”

But he adds: “Now an interloper is promising to shake up the market further. And that is the Light Emitting Diode (LED).” This revolutionary, low-energy form of lighting (not to be confused with OLED) promises to halve carbon emissions from lighting and is backed by Government regulation.

“It’s a very efficient device. It has come into its own in electric lighting and it is proving really efficient for powering LCD displays,” says Ian.

Using lots of small LED lights to create the backlight for LCD displays has fantastic advantages – allowing specific areas of screens to be dimmed and lit up through “local dimming.” This allows LCDs to compete with the sharp contrast and high-quality images of OLEDs.

“With LEDs as backlights, you can truly make your blacks look deepest black, and you can have a contrast ratio of over a million to one so you can build LCD displays that starts to compete with OLED on performance,” says Ian.

However, these mini-LEDs require high levels of electric current, and amorphous silicon thin film transistors which are currently used in LCD screens are unsuitable. The more modern technologies for embedding the transistors in the backplanes – LTPS and IGZO – can cope with the high level of current needed but they are expensive. The big challenge for coming years will be to bring down the cost of making and installing micro-LEDs and mini-LED backlights in LCDs. That would allow LCDs to offer the contrast and colour quality of OLED while undercutting it on price. This will have added importance with the growing use of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality headsets as enhanced reality becomes commonplace.

Using TRUFLEX® inks will enable the transistors to be coated onto the LEDs, rather than growing them on a silicon wafer and transferring them – a highly complex and tricky process. This reduces the price, lowers the carbon footprint, and simplifies the process.

“Because we’re a solution-coated process, we can actually put our transistors on top of the backplane, eliminating the need for mass transfer, soldering, laser welding and repair work. Instead of making a separate set of transistors and bonding them together, you take your LEDs and simply coat the transistors on the top of them, forming a single composite structure. With TRUFLEX® solution coating, you can make LEDs at scale. So we think that represents a very exciting future,” says Ian.

“What’s more, the equipment that you need for our process is the same as is already being used for amorphous silicon transistors. So using the same basic equipment, we can help LCD manufacturers bypass OLEDs and go straight to LED powered displays without having to invest in new machinery.”

The process can be applied to mini-LEDs used in displays and micro-LEDs, which are being used in AR and VR headsets, wearables and other smart devices. Ian believes that during 2023, more businesses will look to test out TRUFLEX® technology and take advantage of its low cost, low temperature solution to boost their LCD displays using LED backlighting.

Another area where progress will be made is in Smartkem’s partnership with Taiwan’s RiTdisplay, announced in October 2021. RiTdisplay manufactures simple Passive Matrix OLED (PMOLED) displays for wearables and white goods. PMOLED displays are monochrome and have limited functionality. By using Smartkem’s TRUFLEX® inks, RiTdisplay is planning to produce more sophisticated Active Matrix OLED (AMOLED) displays, which offer full colour and video-grade displays, so washing machines and other white goods will be able feature full-colour graphic instructions on their display panels. This could become a must-have addition for modern household appliances.

Smartkem is also working with another company to introduce panels of mini-LED displays.

“We would hope that RiTdisplay will this year start to introduce small scale OLED displays and the other company we are working with will start to introduce panels of mini-LED displays – not just prototypes but actual commercial uses of them,” says Ian.

Ian also expects Smartkem to start selling some of its separate TRUFLEX® ink solutions individually. With these developments, Ian is looking forward to a busy and successful year ahead. “This year we’ll see the cadence of our business move to a higher level,” he says.