Gregory Raupp holds what looks like a thin piece of clear plastic in his hands and effortlessly bends it into a Ushape. It’s so flexible that it twists and turns in any direction.
"This is glass," he declares. "If you bend it too far, it will shatter. And you have to be careful of the sharp edges."
Such apparent defiance of the laws of physics is one of the more dramatic results from the ramp up in operations at Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center at the ASU Research Park in Tempe.
The university and a consortium of private companies, such as the Austrianbased EV Group, have formed the center to develop flexible display screens that can be rolled up or folded up and stored in someone’s pocket. With the help of a low-level power source, the user eventually will have access to all of the functions of a notebook computer or a personal digital assistant, but using a screen that could wrap on their shirt cuff, said Raupp, who is director of the center.
Although the center officially opened just this month, engineers have already produced a few cutting-edge technologies including the bendable glass and a relatively rudimentary curved plastic screen built into the sleeve of a military uniform that displays changeable text information.
The center has received a $43.7 million, five-year contract from the U.S. Army to develop flexible screens that can be integrated into a soldier’s uniform. The army hopes soldiers will be able to use the screens as part of a wireless communications system to send and receive battlefield information.
ASU President Michael Crow called the flexible displays "revolutionary information portals — devices that are small, lightweight, rugged and consume very little power. But they will be very powerful in that they will hold the key to successful military operations — real-time information."
Many commercial applications are expected too, and advocates believe flexible displays could some day become a multibillion-dollar business.
Among the possibilities: Roll-down screens that display movies without the need for projection equipment or car windshields that have embedded GPS navigating displays.
One of the major tasks of the center will be to develop processes and technologies to fabricate such displays.
That’s where companies like EV Group, a producers of tools used in the manufacture of semiconductors, come into play.
EV Group has set up its North American headquarters at the center and is supplying equipment that will be used to make prototype screens. Currently designed to work with six-inch diameter circular wafers, the tools will be scaled up to process 14-inch by 18-inch rectangular glass substrates, said Steven Dwyer, general manager of EV Group North America.
The company is contributing a large-area spray coater and a laminator and temporary bonder and debonder to the process.
The Tempe facility is EV Group’s largest installation outside of the company’s world headquarters in Scharding, Austria.
"This new headquarters serves the dual purposes of expanding service to our growing North American customer base and collaborating . . . on a project with farreaching implications for the U.S. military and global commercial markets," chief executive Peter Podesser said.
Other companies with advanced display and semiconductor technologies are being recruited to the center.
"They bring the core expertise we need," said Raupp. "The hope is that, as we develop the standards for the industry, their technology becomes embedded."