Organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) are already in use in many high-tech products today. Because the OLEDs are extremely thin and flexible, they can be used in a wide range of lighting solutions, including as window glass, wafer-thin displays and large-scale luminous wall coverings. The possibilities offered by this unique technology are far from being exhausted.
Printed organic electronics is one of the technologies that has the potential to change the world over the next few years. This is partly because these technologies make environmentally-friendly energy generation, economical energy consumption and resource-saving production of electronic components possible. But it is also down to the special properties of these innovative products and applications: wafer-thin energy-saving lighting systems that need only half as much energy as today’s energy-saving light bulbs; highly-efficient solar cell films that transform the sun’s energy into electricity when applied to the outside of windows; intelligent plasters that measure the patient’s body temperature; or even miniature screens in magazines.
Funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of its top cluster competition and financial support from the state of Baden-Württemberg provided the vital stimulus for establishing the “Forum Organic Electronics” (FOE) cooperation network in Heidelberg as one of the leading networks in printed organic electronics. Since the project won the top cluster competition in 2008, millions of euros have been invested in researching this future technology.
At the heart of the cluster is InnovationLab GmbH (iL) in Heidelberg, a new form of public-private partnership between industry and science. This was established to provide a shared site for the over 28 partners even after the funding period has expired, in order to safeguard interdisciplinary cooperation between the partners along the entire value chain under one umbrella.
The inauguration of the joint research platform in February 2011 gave fresh wind to the work of the FOE top cluster around the iL. Since then, the 2,900 square metres of office and laboratory space have been home to over 100 researchers from the partner companies, working together on innovative lighting systems, highly-efficient solar cell films and printed electronics. The scientists and experts have the use of facilities including a 650 square metre clean room laboratory for their research. In this laboratory – the only one of its kind in the world – researchers from a wide range of fields use specially-designed printing machines and the outstanding opportunities for characterisation and analysis to develop the foundations of printed organic electronics for innovative applications together, using methods that span multiple projects and applications. All key steps in the production process can now be investigated and coordinated in one place, instead of existing and being developed locally and independently of one another as they were before. It took just a short time to bring together the technological expertise in one place. As a flagship project, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen constructed a six-inch roll-to-roll printing press, which can deliver a throughput of 100 metres per minute. The facility is being adapted to the requirements bit by bit. The goal is the constant manufacture of a wide range of electronic components that can be used as system components, for example in the automotive industry and building architecture. Initial demonstration pieces developed through this cooperation have now been displayed to the public, including at this year’s industry trade fair drupa.
In the first funding period for the top cluster’s strategy implementation, the cluster’s development was characterised by the identification of fundamental issues and the establishment of the central research platform. Now the focus is on transferring the processes that have been developed from the laboratory to an industrial process environment. This was also mapped in an interdisciplinary way at the iL, which forms the hub of all cluster activities and is perfectly tailored and excellently equipped for the role.
But the top cluster is not limited to its region or even to Germany. Joint working and projects with Merck Chemicals Ltd’s Chilworth Technical Centre (UK) and EMD Chemicals in Boston (US) ensure that the development of the highly-efficient materials is in line with process developments at the iL. For example, the new generation of organic semiconductors for photovoltaic applications or circuits is being developed in Chilworth, England, and simultaneously adapted to the manufacturing process in the iL laboratories.
Alongside its various research projects, training the next generation of scientists is also very important to the cluster, in order to cover the need for specialist staff in this future market. Students of physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, information technology and even business economics receive interdisciplinary training at the shared site. A scholarship programme established in 2011 in cooperation with Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University allows young scientists to work together on interdisciplinary projects across cultural boundaries.
The first steps in moving from vision to reality have already been taken. The “smart forvision”, a concept vehicle designed by smart and BASF, was presented at the IAA in 2011. This smart demonstrates a mixture of visionary materials, some of which are still at the laboratory stage, and technologies that have a good chance of entering series production. The organic pigment solar cells (OPV) used in the vehicle can transform sunlight into electricity, while semi-transparent organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) illuminate the vehicle’s interior without becoming hot. This prevents energy being lost through heat radiation.
The highlight of the Consumer Electronics Show 2012 in Las Vegas was an OLED television offering brilliant image quality, 1,000 times the speed of LED/LCD displays and pin-sharp depiction of movement with absolutely no blurring or bleeding effects. With a screen diagonal of 140 centimetres, weighing 7.5 kilogrammes and just 4 mm thick, the LG 55EM9600 is very light for a technological heavyweight. These examples show that organic electronics have already made their mark in the most significant industrial segments as a pioneering technology of the future and a driver of innovation. A study by NanoMarkets (2011) showed that portable devices are seen as a major field of application in the OPV segment, resulting in a predicted sales volume of USD 250 million by 2016. Glass applications in photovoltaic systems integrated into buildings are expected to generate another USD 113 million of turnover in 2016. In the field of OLED applications, the market for OLED materials is expected to grow from USD 500 million in 2012 to over USD seven billion in 2019.
Turning these visions into reality is the main goal of the top cluster FOE, which is why the partners involved have long been in favour of expanding the joint research platform. The future of organic electronics has already started here.
The author gained a degree in chemistry from the University of Cologne. In her doctoral thesis, she worked on multi-layer phosphorescent OLEDs based on small molecules. She has been at Merck KGaA since 2009, and also works at InnovationLab GmbH in Heidelberg, a joint research platform that forms part of the top German cluster “Forum Organic Electronics”.