International conglomerate The 3M Company and nanotech startup Cambrios Technologies jointly announced this week that 3M would be marketing a suite of products that will be based on conductors made from Cambrios silver nanowire ink. The products will be called 3M Patterned Silver Nanowire Touch Sensor Film, 3M Patterned Metal Mesh Touch Sensor Film and 3M Advanced ITO Touch Sensor Film .
The deal marks the latest commercial development in what has been one of the most hotly pursued applications for nanomaterials: the replacement of indium tin oxide (ITO) as the transparent conductor for controlling display pixels.
Of course, Cambrios is not alone in offering silver nanowires as an ITO replacement, with competitors Blue Nano and Carestream Health offering similar solutions. And silver nanowires are not the only nanomaterial in the running as an ITO replacement. Cima NanoTech has a self-assembling silver nanoparticle they have developed into a product they call Sante Films, which Japanese optoelectronic films and materials manufacturer Fujimori Kogyo has agreed to mass produce.
The other interesting aspect of the 3M-Cambria deal is that the agreement is between a nanotech startup and an industry leader, like 3M. 3M has some previous history in getting behind nanomaterial firms trying to make an impact in displays. About 18 months ago, 3M’s Optical Systems Division announced an agreement with quantum dot producer Nanosys to develop Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology based on Nanosys’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF).
Earlier this year, the two companies announced that they would start shipping qualification samples of their QDEF product to manufacturers. While initial impressions of QDEF appear to have been favorable (at least in the trade press), as recently as late October the QDEF product was still in the assessment stage along the supply chain.
It is a bold move by both Nanosys and 3M to get behind up good old LCD technology so it can better compete with the performance of Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLED). But it is even bolder move by 3M to get behind both Cambrios and Nanosys.
In addition to a level of bravery on 3M’s part, it shows that big international companies are actually beginning to go out and look for better technologies outside of their own labs rather than trying to squash those technologies before they can become legitimate competitors. These deals represent some of the surprisingly few instances that would lead one to believe that nanotech startups with superior technology actually can find their way to market with the help of industry leaders rather than despite them.