Liquid Crystals Audited

Upturn sustained

As a result of the growing demand for high-tech liquid crystals from Merck, total revenues increased in 2010 to EUR 1,013 million, which is 38% more than in 2009. The quarterly development of Liquid Crystals also reflects the rapid recovery of the global business for liquid crystal displays (LCD) after the crisis-related drop in 2009. Quarterly business performance continued to improve in 2010, with a 50% rise in revenues in the second quarter, reaching a record level of EUR 284 million. In the first half of 2010 alone, total revenues increased over the same period in 2009 by 63% to EUR 523 million. The operating result increased fourfold to EUR 263 million. Although still at a high level, total revenues were slightly lower in the third and fourth quarters. This was the result of the onset of inventory corrections in the LCD market, with display manufacturers reducing their production, as well as slightly unfavorable exchange rates.

Performance Materials | Sales by region

Performance Materials – Sales by region (pie chart)

The market research firm DisplaySearch forecasts annual global shipments of over 268.8 million liquid crystal (LCD) televisions by 2014. The higher demand for LCD televisions is closely linked with new technologies such as LED backlighting, 3D functionality, and Internet connectivity.

New display technologies continue to advance

The overall significant increase in total revenues in 2010 and the high capacity utilization of our LC production was largely due to the strong demand for liquid crystals based on the patented PS-VA (polymer-stabilized vertical alignment) technology, with which Merck further expanded its technology leadership. Besides improved moving picture quality, the technical advantages of PS-VA are faster switching times, higher contrast and better brightness with lower energy consumption.

PS-VA technology opens up new possibilities for LCD producers to achieve previously unattained screen properties – warmer, more natural colors, spatial depth and livelier movement. In Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, this technology is already being used in mass production. The term LED TVs is used to describe LCD televisions in which only the backlight consists of LEDs (light-emitting diodes), thus improving picture contrast, reducing energy consumption and producing more lifelike images. Individual areas of the illuminated surface for displaying a deep black can be separately dimmed or switched off completely, thus enhancing the contrast. This combines the advantages of LED and LCD. Further significant advantages include the low energy consumption and slim design of the flat screens.

Liquid crystals for 3D televisions and tablet PCs

In addition, Merck supplies innovative liquid crystal mixtures needed for devices such as 3D televisions and touch screens used in tablet PCs, which are becoming more and more popular. The liquid crystal mixtures used for special 3D glasses for watching 3D television contributed to the positive business performance, as did light-converting isiphor® phosphors used for LED backlighting.

In addition, we are working on reactive mesogens, which are polymerizable liquid crystals that can be used, for example, as material for optical films. They help to enhance the image quality and improve the power consumption of 2D and 3D screens.

New Liquid Crystals research center in South Korea

With the inauguration of the Advanced Technology Center in Poseung, South Korea, we have created additional possibilities to research and develop the latest liquid crystal technologies and have laid the foundations for further innovations. We invested EUR 11 million in this research center.

OLED technology is progressing rapidly

Besides liquid crystal technology, our researchers are also working on materials for innovative displays. Here the special focus of development is on OLED materials, which are already being used in mobile phones and MP3 players. In our efforts to advance OLED technology, we are increasingly participating in research networks. The development of “new materials for OLEDs from solutions” (NEMO) is the focus of a project in which Merck is participating as the consortium leader together with partners from industry and science. The aim of this collaboration, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is to develop innovative, soluble materials for use in large-area OLED components for applications such as flat screens, electronic traffic signs or lighting systems.

OLEDs are solid-state devices composed of thin films of organic semiconductor molecules that create light when electrical current is applied. OLED tiles are produced on glass plates or flexible substrates and can emit white light that is more homogeneous and more energy-efficient than the light from conventional fluorescent lamps. The main difference to inorganic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is their lower current density and laminar light density and the fact that no crystalline materials are required. They consume little energy and offer sharp images from nearly every viewing angle. By using ultra-thin luminescent layers, OLED technology makes it possible to produce unique, large-area, homogeneous lighting surfaces with a total layer thickness of just a few millimeters.

Compared to the vacuum evaporation process used today, these new materials should significantly improve scalability, structurability and coating efficiency in particular. To this end, the NEMO project partners are focusing on soluble, phosphorescent materials for red, green and blue applications. In order to develop marketable solutions quickly, different injection, transport and electrode materials as well as adhesives are being researched, evaluated and tested for their performance in parallel. In addition, as the leading producer of high-performance OLED materials, Merck is collaborating with Braunschweig Technical University and the U.S.-based company Applied Materials on a project called “Light InLine” to develop processes to reduce the production costs of OLED lighting.

Photovoltaics – a key technology

Photovoltaics are one of the key technologies with respect to renewable energy sources. In this field, the Performance Materials division is focusing on the development of materials and printing technologies for solar cell production.

With the isishape® range, we already offer the producers of crystalline solar cells printable structuring materials that improve solar cell efficiency and enable eco-friendly production processes.

Our material platform lisicon® offers customers organic semiconductors for printed, flexible and robust organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells. Developing materials further to increase solar cell efficiency is the key to reaching mass markets. To this end, Merck is collaborating with other leading industrial companies on a development project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education. This project aims to achieve fully printed, flexible solar cells with a minimum of 10% efficiency by 2012. At our Technical Centre in Chilworth, near Southampton, United Kingdom, we are focusing intensely on these goals.

In parallel, we are working with leading partners worldwide on new technologies, for example dye-sensitized solar cells. These imitate nature’s photosynthesis process. The electrolytes in the dye-sensitized solar cells are increasingly based on the use of ionic liquids, in whose development and manufacture Merck has a globally leading role. The use of ionic liquids creates the possibility to produce both rigid and flexible solar cells with high efficiency and stability. This special feature will enable us to develop many new fields of application in the future.

Scientific alliances

Together with the University of Freiburg, we launched a project in November to develop and produce new battery materials. The Merck Battery Materials Lab, which is jointly run and operated with the university, is working to develop fundamentally new conductive salts for lithium-ion batteries to power hybrid and electric cars.

With such concept labs, Merck has been pursuing a new approach since 2006 aimed at building strong alliances with external and internal partners and an international research and technology network. These concept labs are an important element of the Advanced Technologies (AT) unit of the Performance Materials division. The goal of this unit is to develop innovative products through to market launch with the use of new promising technologies.

The concept labs are located at hot-spots of academic research around the world and focus internationally on strategic growth areas within the chemical industry. The systematic use of in-house expertise and the core competencies of Merck create the preconditions for generating new technologies and innovative products for Merck’s Chemicals business. At the same time, external knowledge as well as in-licensing, cooperation and promotion possibilities are utilized. Merck concept labs are located in Darmstadt, Heidelberg, Atsugi (Japan), and Boston (United States).

Additionally, Merck is cooperating as part of a network of German companies and universities to develop concepts for the economical mass production of organic electronic circuits, storage devices and sensors, power generation through organic photovoltaics, as well as energy conservation through the use of more economical organic light-emitting diodes. To implement the project, the pacesetting partners have established a common platform, namely InnovationLab GmbH based in Heidelberg.