To build e-paper, several different technologies exist, some using plastic substrate and electronics so that the display is flexible. E-paper is considered more comfortable to read than conventional displays. This is due to the stable image, which does not need to be refreshed constantly, the wider viewing angle, and the fact that it uses reflected ambient light. While it has a similar contrast ratio to that of a newspaper and is lightweight and durable, it still lacks good color reproduction.
Applications include e-book readers capable of displaying digital versions of books and e-paper magazines, electronic pricing labels in retail shops, time tables at bus stations, and electronic billboards.
Electronic paper should not be confused with digital paper, which is a pad to create handwritten digital documents with a digital pen.
In the simplest implementation of an electrophoretic display, titanium dioxide particles approximately one micrometre in diameter are dispersed in a hydrocarbon oil. A dark-colored dye is also added to the oil, along with surfactants and charging agents that cause the particles to take on an electric charge. This mixture is placed between two parallel, conductive plates separated by a gap of 10 to 100 micrometres. When a voltage is applied across the two plates, the particles will migrate electrophoretically to the plate bearing the opposite charge from that on the particles. When the particles are located at the front (viewing) side of the display, it appears white, because light is scattered back to the viewer by the high-index titania particles. When the particles are located at the rear side of the display, it appears dark, because the incident light is absorbed by the colored dye. If the rear electrode is divided into a number of small picture elements (pixels), then an image can be formed by applying the appropriate voltage to each region of the display to create a pattern of reflecting and absorbing regions.
Electrophoretic displays are considered prime examples of the electronic paper category, because of their paper-like appearance and low power consumption.
Examples of commercial electrophoretic displays include the high-resolution active matrix displays used in the Amazon Kindle, Sony Librie, Sony Reader, and iRex iLiad e-readers. These displays are constructed from an electrophoretic imaging film manufactured by E Ink Corporation. The Motorola MOTOFONE F3 was the first mobile phone to use the technology, in an effort to help eliminate glare from direct sunlight during outdoor use.
Electrophoretic displays can be manufactured using the Electronics on Plastic by Laser Release (EPLaR) process developed by Philips Research to enable existing AM-LCD manufacturing plants to create flexible plastic displays.
In the 1990s another type of electronic paper was invented by Joseph Jacobson, who later co-founded the E Ink Corporation which formed a partnership with Philips Components two years later to develop and market the technology. In 2005, Philips sold the electronic paper business as well as its related patents to Prime View International. This used tiny microcapsules filled with electrically charged white particles suspended in a colored oil. In early versions, the underlying circuitry controlled whether the white particles were at the top of the capsule (so it looked white to the viewer) or at the bottom of the capsule (so the viewer saw the color of the oil). This was essentially a reintroduction of the well-known electrophoretic display technology, but the use of microcapsules allowed the display to be used on flexible plastic sheets instead of glass.
One early version of electronic paper consists of a sheet of very small transparent capsules, each about 40 micrometres across. Each capsule contains an oily solution containing black dye (the electronic ink), with numerous white titanium dioxide particles suspended within. The particles are slightly negatively charged, and each one is naturally white.
The microcapsules are held in a layer of liquid polymer, sandwiched between two arrays of electrodes, the upper of which is made from indium tin oxide, a transparent conducting material. The two arrays are aligned so that the sheet is divided into pixels, which each pixel corresponding to a pair of electrodes situated either side of the sheet. The sheet is laminated with transparent plastic for protection, resulting in an overall thickness of 80 micrometres, or twice that of ordinary paper.
The network of electrodes is connected to display circuitry, which turns the electronic ink 'on' and 'off' at specific pixels by applying a voltage to specific pairs of electrodes. Applying a negative charge to the surface electrode repels the particles to the bottom of local capsules, forcing the black dye to the surface and giving the pixel a black appearance. Reversing the voltage has the opposite effect - the particles are forced from the surface, giving the pixel a white appearance. A more recent incarnation of this concept requires only one layer of electrodes beneath the microcapsules.
When a voltage is applied between the electrode and the water, the interfacial tension between the water and the coating changes. As a result the stacked state is no longer stable, causing the water to move the oil aside.
This results in a partly transparent pixel, or, in case a reflective white surface is used under the switchable element, a white pixel. Because of the small size of the pixel, the user only experiences the average reflection, which means that a high-brightness, high-contrast switchable element is obtained, which forms the basis of the reflective display.
Displays based on electro-wetting have several attractive features. The switching between white and coloured reflection is fast enough to display video content.
Furthermore, it is a low-power and low-voltage technology, and displays based on the effect can be made flat and thin. The reflectivity and contrast are better or equal to those of other reflective display types and are approaching those of paper.
In addition, the technology offers a unique path toward high-brightness full-colour displays, leading to displays that are four times brighter than reflective LCDs and twice as bright as other emerging technologies .
Instead of using red, green and blue (RGB) filters or alternating segments of the three primary colours, which effectively result in only one third of the display reflecting light in the desired colour, electro-wetting allows for a system in which one sub-pixel is able to switch two different colours independently.
This results in the availability of two thirds of the display area to reflect light in any desired colour. This is achieved by building up a pixel with a stack of two independently controllable coloured oil films plus a colour filter.
The colours used are cyan, magenta and yellow, which is a so-called subtractive system, comparable to the principle used in inkjet printing for example. Compared to LCD another factor two in brightness is gained because no polarisers are required.
Electronic ink can be applied to both flexible and rigid materials. In the case of flexible displays, the base requires a thin, flexible material tough enough to withstand considerable wear, such as extremely thin plastic. The method of how the inks are encapsulated and then applied to the substrate is what distinguishes each company from each other. These processes are complex and are carefully guarded industry secrets. The manufacture of electronic paper promises to be less complicated and less costly than traditional LCD manufacture.
There are many approaches to electronic paper, with many companies developing technology in this area. Other technologies being applied to electronic paper include modifications of liquid crystal displays, electrochromic displays, and the electronic equivalent of an Etch A Sketch at Kyushu University. Advantages of electronic paper includes low power usage (power is only drawn when the display is updated), flexibility and better readability than most displays. Electronic ink can be printed on any surface, including walls, billboards, product labels and T-shirts. The ink's flexibility would also make it possible to develop rollable displays for electronic devices. The ideal electronic paper product is a digital book that can typeset itself and could be read as if it were made of regular paper, yet programmed to download and display the text from any book. Another possible use is in the distribution of an electronic version of a daily paper.