In 1990, Richard McCullough was pondering a new way to make conductive polymers so that they would transfer more electricity in electronic applications. McCullough, then a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, knew this type of linked molecule was hard to manufacture cheaply on a commercial scale. He thought joining the ends of a chain to form a collapsible loop might solve both problems.
After a decade of federally funded research, McCullough proved his hypothesis. “We figured out a way to connect a polymer head to tail,” he says. “That allowed the structure to be flat so electrons could run up and down it, like water in a hose.” If a hose is straight, lots of water flows through. When twisted, the stream thins. “Through synthesis we straightened out our polymer to make it very conductive,” McCullough explains.
McCullough realized that his conductive “ink,” his shorthand for his breakthrough polymer, could improve organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), the foundation for low-cost printed electronics and newfangled circuitry products, including flexible electronic displays. With his ink, OLEDs, first commercialized in 1987, would not only be brighter and crisper, they would use less energy than LEDs and liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Unlike LCDs, which are near ubiquitous in consumer electronics, OLEDs don’t require backlight, further cutting costs, says McCullough. After applying for a patent, McCullough recruited serial entrepreneur Andrew W. Hannah to help turn his ink into a business. Six months later, in mid-2002, they founded Plextronics in Pittsburgh to develop commercial applications.
Today the 65-person company makes the ink in its factory in Hamar Township, Pa., and sells it to OLED manufacturers and researchers. “This technology will change the world of electronics as we know it,” says Hannah, 45, who serves as chief executive officer. McCullough, 52, now chief scientist at Plextronics and dean of CMU’s College of Science, describes it as a “disruptive technology that can be printed on anything. Imagine a Kindle on steroids. It’ll do away with iPads.” Instead, readers will be able to roll up their plastic magazine or newspaper and stuff it in their pocket. Raghu Das, CEO and analyst at research firm IDTechEx in Cambridge, Mass., says the market for printed and thin film electronics will be $2.2 billion in 2011 and could climb to $44.2 billion by 2021.
How will OLEDs containing Plextronics’s ink enable McCullough’s grand vision? In two to three years, manufacturers will be able to combine an extremely thin layer of Plextronics’s ink with another film of polymer to form a flat, thin “sandwich” for small displays (smartphones, for example), says Hannah. Integrating it in large screens such as TVs will take three to five years. In customer trials, Plextronics’s technology increased OLED devices’ power efficiency by up to 40 percent compared with first-generation OLED technology, says McCullough. His technology will be able to last hundreds of thousands of hours and will require 50 percent less energy than conventional LCDs, he says.
Though OLEDs made by competitors are already commercially available in small displays -- mostly cell phones -- all over Asia, Dean Freeman, vice-president of research at Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., is skeptical about mainstream adoption. He says OLEDs’ potential has been touted for 20 years and cites concerns such as peeling ink. Hannah says that time frame is fast and the peeling problem was limited to an earlier formula and is solved now. Both agree OLEDs will be used in combination with LEDs for the next five years instead of completely replacing them.
Plextronics isn’t limiting its push to the $120 billion display market. In late April, McCullough and Hannah announced the company’s first distribution deal with Sanyo Chemical in Japan to market the ink for OLED lighting to major electronics companies. Plextronics is also pursuing solar-power panel manufacturers with its organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar cells, which can absorb and store both the sun’s and fluorescent lighting’s energy. The company plans to sell OPV cells with its ink by 2012 for use in advertising technology in stores. They’ll power moving images on store displays and product packaging without batteries, for example.
Investors, including technology manufacturer Applied Materials in Santa Clara, Calif., and chemical producer Solvay Chemicals in Brussels, are betting the three markets Plextronics is targeting will pay off; they’ve forked over $55 million since 2002. Hannah says Plextronics had $5 million to $10 million in revenue in 2010 and expects the same this year, mostly from sales of the inks for OLED and OPV applications and research contracts. He admits that in the white lighting arena, the company is facing the “huge challenge of an entrenched technology in a big market,” but says Plextronics’s ink is better and will ultimately prove cheaper than the lighting in widespread use today. “We know the lightbulb is going away and we need a technology that’s more energy-efficient that gives you the quality of light you expect at a cost point that allows everybody to adopt it,” says Hannah, “That’s why OLED will attack the $75 billion lightbulb replacement industry.”