Coming soon: Displays on your car's windshield?

Ever wish you could be Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future II and travel to a future where city windows display pastoral scenes and the newspaper is a disposable piece of constantly updating, foldable plastic?

Well, that movie magic may soon come to life, thanks to a new class of materials recently developed by researchers at Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard.

The new material under development will ultimately be used to create inexpensive transparent transistors, says John Wager, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at OSU.

Transistors, typically flat, are the most fundamental electronic device, Wager says. They are used to control the amount of current that flows through a system and ultimately allow devices to have logic, memory, and amplification.

The new class of materials is created by mixing zinc oxide (the stuff you put on your nose when you go to the beach) and tin oxide (the material that makes food cans), and was created as an inexpensive replacement for the costly transparent transistors used in solar cells. The mix never became a successful replacement for solar cells, but recently has found a new purpose in electronic devices.

Science fiction or science fact?

So why make transparent transistors? According to researchers, the potential consumer applications are abundant. Possibilities include glass used as an electronic device to display information on storefronts or car windshields.

Wager also expects to see updates to LCDs, new types of copy machines, and better solar power cells. These types of devices that use glass will become significantly smaller as transparent transistors allow the mechanical support systems to be embedded in the currently unused glass -- which Wager says is currently "wasted real estate."

For more outlandish applications, Wager recalls movie technology. Think of Tom Cruise's Minority Report, or a lesser-known sci-fi movie from 2000 called Red Planet.

"This guy hops out of his spaceship, he pulls out what looks like a pen, unfolds an electronic transparent see-through map. The map is figuring out the terrain behind him and is identifying for him everything he sees in the terrain," says Wager.

Although that kind of transparent display would need to be equipped with a GPS device -- and by Wager's assessment is "way out there" -- the concept is not so far-fetched when it comes to future applications of the materials, he says.

How long will it take?

While "most materials breakthroughs take ten years on the average to hit the consumer market," says Wager, "I don't think this one's going to take that long."

These types of breakthroughs generally take about five to six years to catch the attention of the industry that will implement them, Wager says. This time, however, industry has been waiting for science to catch up with its ideas, he says. "Already these companies are coming through and saying 'we've got something here we'd like to plug (these new materials) into (it)," he says.

According to OSU's research, the transparent transistors can be created so cheaply that in the future there may be one-time-use disposable electronics.

If these transparent transistors were to replace the traditional silicon transistors -- like the ones in your computer monitor, flat-screen television, and the CPU in your hard drive -- you could see the price of many consumer electronics fall in the years to come.

"They may be so effective that there will be many uses which don't even require transparency, they are just a better type of transistor, cheap and easy to produce," Wager says.

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Erin Biba

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