FED: Not Yet Dead

One of Taiwan’s top two LCD manufacturers, AUO, has announced that it is buying some technology (intellectual property) and other assets from Field Emission Technology (FET). FET was a spin-off from Sony that was develop and manufacture field-emission displays (FEDs), but during last year’s economic downturn, the company balked at spending the $300 million required to buy the manufacturing facilities from Pioneer.

FEDs are a flat panel display technology that were in vogue in the research community about 10 years ago. They match the active matrix backplane of an LCD with the phosphor screen of a CRT. Instead of liquid crystals, the backplane has hundreds of microscopic electron emitters behind each sub-pixel. The result is a very thin display with CRT-like response times, and since the display is emissive, the color performance and viewing angle are capable of the same excellent quality of a CRT. Unlike a CRT, however, there are no alignment, convergence, or screen geometry issues.

The problem is that it turns out that FEDs are not as easy to make as was initially thought. The electron emitters had lifetime limitations, and there were other complications. As a result, most of the major companies abandoned their FED research efforts. Sony was one of the last one standing when they folded FET’s tent last year.

So here comes AUO, which has also made commitments to the bistable displays used in ebook readers, and to OLED displays widely used in cell phones and portable media players. Apparently the company believes that it can make FEDs work as high-end displays for professional applications like TV studios. This is the same market targeted by the ill-fated (and similar technology) SED panels backed by Canon. At this point, AUO’s success with FED technology has to be ranked as a long shot, but sometimes long shots do win.