We're Going Green


Veterans of the display industry use SID's Display Week to identify trends in the electronic-display industry. While the emergence of touch panels, 3-D technologies, and OLED display products gathered the bulk of the publicity at Display Week 2008, there was another emerging trend that was perhaps less apparent but, in the long run, probably more important. Electronic displays are starting to go green, and it was exciting for me to see the innovations starting across multiple areas.

Why is this important? It's because the electronic-display industry is big business, with a significant global impact. The industry is now at a size in which its environmental effects cannot be ignored. For example, the power consumed by watching television dwarfs any other usage of electricity by consumer electronics in households in the United States. As displays get larger and electricity more expensive, power consumption becomes a much more serious issue. The good news is that the electronic-display industry has innovation in its lifeblood, and companies in this industry can treat environmental challenges as a means to differentiate from competitors and to drive profitability.

One of the keynote addresses at Display Week 2008 was delivered by Shaung-Lang (Paul) Peng of AU Optronics Corp (AUO), which has aggressive development targets in multiple areas of environmental impact. Peng's talk provided a rich set of opportunities in a more sustainable display industry, two of which I will discuss here: reduced energy consumption in liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), and the reduction of toxic components in electronic-display manufacture.

AUO plans to develop and introduce technologies to reduce the average power consumption of its LCD TVs by 50% by 2010. According to AUO, a 50% reduction in power for LCD TVs across all manufacturers by 2010 will save 3 terawatt-hours each year, or the equivalent output of three nuclear power plants! With rising energy costs and increased concerns about the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment, reducing the energy required to watch television provides a major positive benefit, and also improves the sustainability of large display sizes in a world where energy consumption may become more expensive with time.

How can these improvements be made? AUO (and others) are examining all aspects of the LCD. Backlights can be made more efficient; light-control films and color filters can increase the efficiency of light channeled into the panel; pixel designs can be improved; and the energy used in "standby" mode can be reduced. While some of these challenges seem daunting, they are no more difficult than other problems the electronic-display industry has addressed and solved by in the past.

Another major initiative is the reduction of toxic materials, such as heavy metals, as components in electronic displays. Most companies have recognized that the the conventional cold-cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL) backlights in LCD TVs contain high levels of mercury. When CCFL-backlit displays reach their "end of life" and are discarded, that mercury can migrate into the environment in an undesirable way. Reduction of the heavy-metal content in electronic displays can have a major positive impact in the life cycle of these products.

In the case of AUO, Peng described a multi-pronged approach. In the near-term, mercury levels in LCDs are being reduced through the use of low-mercury backlights and by redesigning the module to use fewer backlights. AUO has a goal to replace all LCD backlights with light-emitting-diode (LED) technology by 2011. They estimate that the use of LED backlights will reduce the usage of mercury by 120 grams each year from their manufactured LCDs.

Other companies are taking other approaches toward improved environmental footprints. For example, the optical stack for LCDs is a major target of innovation, as demonstrated by 3M and others in the light-control-film arena. Backlights containing mercury can be replaced not only by LEDs, but by OLEDs or by field emission by carbon nanotubes. Companies such as 3M and others continue to innovate film technologies that capture and direct light in an AMLCD, making its use more efficient. Companies such as Corning are showing that it is possible to remove heavy metals from display glass, preventing the leaching of toxic metals into the environment once a display enters the waste stream. Sharp and others are investing in photovoltaic capacity as well as LCD capacity, sharing process technologies across the manufacturing space. The companies beginning to drive innovations in this space are remarkable, and more are joining every year.

The key item across all these initiatives is sustainability. Reducing environmental impact and energy consumption should not automatically mean that prices go up, or that people are asked to make due with less. A much better situation is to use clever design and advanced technology to generate equivalent or better performance while reducing energy costs and environmental impact. In this way, the consumer gets what they need in terms of performance and price, governments and the energy industry get what they want in terms of power efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emission, and the company gets new markets for their electronic-display products. Being able to generate more while starting with less is the sign of a sustainable set of products, which will become increasingly important in a crowded, energy-hungry world.

The rationale of "going green" as a charitable act is rapidly becoming unnecessary. Developing and producing products that from an environmental perspective are sustainable and low impact is just good business. So, for those companies with major efforts in these areas, I salute your foresight. For those that are not yet taking this area seriously, I'll point out that you are falling behind your competitors.

Paul Drzaic
President, Society for Information Display