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When Amazon.com Inc was developing its most advanced tablet to date, it asked a little-known company to solve a tricky problem with the screen: how to produce rich colors without draining battery life.
With the help of Milpitas, California-based Nanosys Inc, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 became one of Amazon's best-selling tablets, winning critical acclaim for its vibrant display.
The answer? Quantum dots, which are semiconductor crystals 10,000 times finer than a human hair. They convert electrical energy into light and can be manipulated to produce precise colors.
"If you put a regular LCD display next to a quantum-dot LCD display, your grandmother can tell the difference," said Jason Carlson, chief executive officer of QD Vision Inc, which makes quantum dots for Sony Corp's Triluminos TV.
So explosive is demand for this technology that the few companies able to make quantum dots are struggling to keep up. Most are partnering with big display makers to set up industrial-scale manufacturing.
QD Vision and Nanosys are considering going public in the next year or so.
But while quantum dots are cheaper and consume less power than organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), their rival technology at the sharp end of the display business, they cannot yet be produced in the same quantities.
Quantum dots from most suppliers also contain cadmium, a toxic metal whose use is restricted in many countries.
A recent survey by DisplayMate Technologies rated Amazon's Kindle Fire display as the clear winner in color reproduction against Apple Inc's iPad mini and Google Inc's Nexus 7. (http://bit.ly/1tn58ze)
Smartphone and TV consumers also like quantum dots for their low price. A 65-inch quantum-dot display TV would cost about $3,500, half as much as an OLED-display model of the same size, said Nutmeg Consultants founder Ken Werner.
Werner said quantum dots would retain that pricing advantage for at least three years.
For that reason, the OLED market cannot match the growth rates forecast for quantum dots.
Touch Display Research analyst Jennifer Colegrove said she expected a $9.6 billion market for quantum-dot displays and lighting components by 2023, compared with sales of just $75 million last year. (http://bit.ly/1mceJ7j)
By contrast, Transparency Market Research projects annual sales of OLED displays at $25.9 billion by 2018 versus $4.9 billion in 2012.
Although quantum dots have been in development since the 1980s, they have only made the leap from laboratory to market in the last decade.
Nanosys shelved its plan to go public in 2004 for want of a viable product.