Major consumer electronics companies around the world are trying to develop flexible plastic panels to replace the glass used in screens for computers and mobile phones.
At a small factory near Shanghai, Chinese-Canadian plastics entrepreneur Wayne Song believes he's closing in on commercializing technology to use biocomposites to make such a display, by mixing nano-scale natural fibers with polycarbonate and other optical-grade plastics.
The fibers, which are 0.001 the thickness of a human hair, or about 50 nanometers, give the plastic the same performance as the specialized glass used now. The key in manufacturing is how to process the plant fibers, said Song.
“Nanomaterials are big, everybody is doing it and the market is huge, but the bottleneck is the processing and how to disperse the fibers in an efficient, economical way,” said Song, president of Futuresoft Materials Inc. in Jiangyin. “Many people are making the particles but the particles have to be delivered in a useful fashion.”
The process can use a variety of natural fibers, including aloe, crab shells and wood.
Futuresoft Materials wants to make the film for the display panels, using a cast-film process, and not to make the display panels directly. If the research goes well the company will attract more investment, he said.
Song, who also is president of Mississauga, Ontario-based extrusion and wood-plastic composites technology firm Futuresoft Technologies Inc., has worked in the wood-plastic composite industries in North America since 1989.
He says he was one of the first people to bring WPC technology to China starting in the late 1990s.
If the work can be commercialized successfully, Song said it will create a plastic screen that is bendable and hard to break, potentially opening up many new applications. He said some electronics industry experts expect the plastic panels to replace glass over time.
In an interview at the China Sixth International Forum of Wood Plastic Composites, held Nov. 3-4 in Ningbo, Song said he has developed mixing technology that can disperse the fibers in a much more uniform way than traditional single- or twin-screw extrusion.
One key is to disperse the fibers in a way that they are not aggregated and each nanofiber is under the visible light spectrum, so they are transparent in the film, he said.
The plant fibers actually improve the plastic by giving it the same thermal expansion coefficient as glass, said Song, who has a Ph.D in polymer processing and machinery from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Normally, Song said, plastic has a thermal expansion coefficient and order of magnitude higher than glass — meaning that the expansion or stretching of the plastic would break the circuits inside the display screen — but the fibers give the plastic panels the same thermal expansion properties as glass.
Song said a US$1 million research effort is closing in on a commercial prototype.
“Right now we are trying to make it into panels, so within this year, by year-end, I will show you this film with electronic circuits imprinted and show you a TV screen that is bendable,” he said. “That is our target, by the end of this year.”
Futuresoft Materials is not the only organization working on using bio-based fibers this way.
The company is working with Mohini Sain, director of the Centre for Biocomposites and Biomaterials Processing at the University of Toronto and dean of the university's Faculty of Forestry. Also, Song said researchers in Sweden and Japan are working independently on similar technology.
Right now, the glass used in display panels is only made by four companies around the world, including Corning Display Technologies in Corning, N.Y., Japan's Asahi Glass Co. and Nippon Electric Glass Co. Ltd., and a joint venture of Corning and South Korea's Samsung Corp.
But many consumer electronics companies are researching such plastic panels. Hewlett-Packard, for example, in 2009 released a flexible plastic prototype screen developed with researchers at Arizona State University.
Most of the world's glass-panel displays are made in mainland China or Taiwan but the key technology generally rests with other countries, Song said.