The digital revolution is impacting our lives in a variety of ways – especially as users of communication media. Whether for smartphones, laptops or flat-screen televisions, Merck, the global liquid crystals market and technology leader, is driving the development of cutting-edge displays.
Technology is not merely moving forward – it is making quantum leaps. In the age of digitization, our world is undergoing a breathtaking transformation. The global volume of electronic data is doubling every two years, and computing power is continuously reaching new heights, breaking one record after another. Cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things are the buzzwords of the digital debates. As a global communication and information medium, the Internet is profoundly changing people’s day-to-day lives – from consumer behavior and the exchange of ideas and experiences, to the transmission of knowledge.
PRODUCTION OF LIQUID CRYSTALS → in Atsugi, Japan
The information explosion unleashed by the Web is viewed by social scientists as the basis of a modern understanding of democracy, and by economists as a growth driver. Online marketing along with the real-time analysis of relevant customer and market data using digital technologies have become key competitive factors for companies. Smartphones and tablet computers have long been making the Internet mobile. This represents a rapid shift; mobile phones were once only affordable to wealthy customers, who could also use the devices to tone their muscles. In today’s world, it would be a real challenge for the average user to get through a single day without a smartphone. These networked fonts of information have gone mainstream and, in the digital age, are now the constant companion of people everywhere.
Intuitive display control
The situation is no different for Mark Verrall. He demonstratively swipes his index finger over his display, smiles and says, “We have already accomplished a great deal and will go on to accomplish much more.” Verrall, who holds a PhD in Chemistry, was recently appointed Head of Display Materials R&D at Merck. He has been working for the company for 25 years and has contributed to the unique success story of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) – a tale in which the “swipe” represents a particularly exciting chapter. “Intuitive touchscreen control is what turned smartphones and tablet computers into a mass phenomenon,” says Verrall.
Wavelength-dispersive X-ray spectrometry → in AN R&D CLEANROOM in Atsugi, Japan
“Intuitive touchscreen control is what turned smartphones and tablet computers into a mass phenomenon.”
Mark VerralL → HEAD OF DISPLAY MATERIALS R&D
When people swipe their fingers across the user interface, they are most likely setting Merck liquid crystal molecules in motion – the Darmstadt-based company serves around 60% of the global market. The unique thing about this technology is that liquid crystals have a state of matter somewhere between a liquid, whose molecules flow around one another freely, and a crystal, which consists of strictly oriented molecules. In the liquid crystal mixture, the rod-shaped molecules align like a school of fish and control the electromagnetic waves of light. When an electrical current is applied, the liquid crystals change their alignment, thereby transmitting more or less light.
RESEARCH → IN A LABORATORY OF EMD PERFORMANCE MATERIALS IN BRANCHBURG, NJ (USA)
“We create added value through new products for semiconductors with unprecedented levels of efficiency.”
Rico Wiedenbruch → HEAD OF INTEGRATED CIRCUIT MATERIALS
Success thanks to close partnerships
For many years, people failed to recognize the potential of liquid crystals, which were discovered in 1888 and would later become an astounding success. While by the end of the 1960s Merck scientists had come up with the idea of the flat-screen display, it would take some time for this dream to become a reality. Initially, liquid crystals were used in the LC displays of pocket calculators and digital watches. In close cooperation with customers – electronics companies, particularly in Japan – Merck drove the technological development of LCDs. Decades of experience have resulted in Merck liquid crystals that generate brilliant, high-contrast, razor-sharp images and that enable rapid frame rates for movies and animation. They are found in ultra-thin, large-screen TVs, as well as in mobile phones, electronic games and digital cameras. Through partnerships with primarily Asian display and device manufacturers, Merck has established itself as the global technology and market leader. In addition, strategic acquisitions are being made to secure a successful future, such as the takeover of AZ Electronic Materials. “This company supplies specialty chemicals for other display components, which makes them a perfect fit for our portfolio,” Verrall says. The acquisition of AZ has led to the creation of the new Integrated Circuit Materials business unit, headed by Rico Wiedenbruch. “Our customers are constantly demanding new materials in order to further miniaturize semiconductors and boost their capacity. We create added value for them through new products for semiconductors with unprecedented levels of efficiency,” says Wiedenbruch, who is convinced of the business unit’s potential. “Such products can be highly profitable and achieve a strong market position within a few years,” he notes.
MICROSCOPE SLIDE → IN A LIQUID CRYSTALS RESEARCH LABORATORY IN ATSUGI, JAPAN
“These are all innovations to which Merck’s advanced material developments have contributed, and the market continues to evolve at an increasing rate.”
Ever bigger, ever sharper
But back to liquid crystals. In the fast-moving electronics industry, manufacturers are focused on reducing their devices’ appetite for energy while extending battery life. Merck’s new Ultra Bright FFS technology allows the liquid crystal layer to transmit 15% more background light, which can then be used for image rendering. This reduces the power consumption of the device by 30%. The consumer electronics industry is characterized by a constant flow of innovations. In particular, TV screens are becoming larger and larger with increasingly sharp definition. For instance, the full HD standard has been succeeded by ultra HD, where the lines of pixels have increased from the previous 1,080 to 2,160. Thus, the number of pixels has quadrupled from around two million to eight million. Curved screens and computer monitors are likewise providing improved image quality. How do they do this? In a conventional flat screen, the pixels at the edges are farther away from the viewer than those in the middle, which can slightly distort the viewer’s perspective. By contrast, the new curved technology provides a more three-dimensional cinematic experience.
New applications ready for launch
“These are all innovations to which Merck’s advanced material developments have contributed, and the market continues to evolve at an increasing rate,” says Mark Verrall, who proceeds to name even more examples. For instance, Verrall notes the great potential of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), the development of which Merck is also driving. OLEDs are already being used in the display of many mobile phones, and they are gaining ground for use in TV screens as well. Organic light-emitting diodes are self-illuminating, which means they require no additional light source. OLED screens provide more even lighting and high contrast, among other benefits. According to Verrall, flexible OLED displays that can be bent, folded or rolled up will lead to completely new possibilities. “The prototypes are very thin and lightweight, and yet are still robust. They also possess a particularly high luminance,” says Verrall. He adds that it might soon be possible to open up a smartphone and turn it into a tablet PC. Furthermore, flexible displays are paving the way for many other applications – from wristwatches and display panels, to decorative home elements. Soon, buildings fitted with windows based on LC technology could be given a futuristic look. These windows consist of two panes of glass that are glued together at a distance of a few micrometers. The application of a low-voltage electric current controls how much light the window transmits, enabling continuously variable switching in just seconds from light to dark and vice versa. If light and temperature are optimally managed, this technology can significantly boost energy efficiency. It will be possible to integrate these high-tech windows into conventional windows with very little effort.
Just when Verrall is about to launch into the next example, his smartphone vibrates – it’s time for his next appointment. Being constantly available is both a blessing and a curse of the digital age. No doubt Verrall could continue to name many more examples of emerging technologies from Merck, impressive evidence of the quantum leaps being made by the company.
Displaying Futures 2014 → PARTICIPANT IMPRESSIONS
“What influence do innovative display solutions have on architecture and on the lives of people in urban environments?” This question was discussed by experts at a symposium entitled “Building Innovation – Displaying Architecture”, which Merck held in Shanghai in November 2014. The speakers included Adam Greenfield, Doreen Heng Lui, Amish Patel and Tim Edler, who are quoted here and on the next page. The symposium was part of the “Displaying Futures” series, which Merck launched in 2011. “Displaying Futures” creates space for interaction, interdisciplinary exchange and mutual inspiration for display and material producers, designers, architects, artists, scientists and experts from other fields. The aim is to develop scenarios beyond pure technical approaches that show how constantly changing human needs with respect to communication and mobility are impacting the properties of displays and how display and material producers can already adapt to these today. In 2015, the symposium will be held in the United States and thus outside Asia for the first time.
“Our challenge as architects is to design USING materials that are sustainable, energy-efficient, and representative, yet at the same time inexpensive. Thus, we are constantly looking for new products that can help us reach these goals.”
Doreen Heng LIU, NODE →
NODE (Nansha Original DEsign or NO DEsign) was established in early 2004. This small and high-quality design firm in the Pearl River Delta currently employs ten architects and designers. Doreen Heng Liu is its principal architect.
Amish Patel, Microsoft →
A design producer at Microsoft, Patel focuses on the understanding of how human user interfaces and interaction languages need to evolve in both software and hardware.
“The future of communication between the digital and human worlds will be facilitated by the use of displays, small and large.”
“We engineer tools to serve a given end, we deploy them into the world, and the world molds itself around their presence, creating new desires, new demands, new risks and new opportunities.”
Tim Edler, realities:united →
In 2000, the brothers Tim Edler and Jan Edler founded realities:united, a studio for art, architecture and technology. They develop and support architectural solutions, usually incorporating new media and information technologies.
Adam Greenfield, Urbanscale →
An American writer and urbanist, Greenfield is the founder and managing director of Urbanscale, an urban systems design practice based in New York.
“Once media elements stop being seen as exceptional spots coined by high intensity in every possible way – color, speed, resolution, content, narration, cost, energy – we expect that media elements will merge into architecture at a much lower level of intensity and on a much larger physical scale.”