The recent groundbreaking development of Sharp Corp.'s high-definition, power-saving IGZO liquid crystals, which enable smaller pixels for higher screen resolutions and screen reaction speeds, would not have been possible without government funding for their basic research and development.
The IGZO crystals are a success for the government, which calls science and technology breakthroughs a pillar of its growth strategy.
With foreign electronics competitors rapidly trying to play catch-up, Sharp will have one eye over its shoulder as many also ask how taxpayer-funded research should be used for the national interest and how the research born in Japan should be applied in a globalized world.
IGZO does not use conventional semiconductors made from silicon, but rather uses semiconductors composed of indium, gallium and zinc oxide. Thus, it is called IGZO. Professor Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, an expert in materials science, pioneered the use of IGZO by building the first prototype thin-film transistor (TFT), an achievement he announced in the British science journal Nature.
To develop IGZO, Hosono received research funding from the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), an independent administrative agency affiliated with the science ministry. The agency provided 1.8 billion yen ($18 million) of funding for a five-year period beginning in 1999. Of that, around 100 million yen was used for basic research on IGZO.
IGZO is dozens of times more conductive than silicon. It can make smaller TFTs and give high-definition quality to liquid crystals.
Sharp also focused on IGZO's properties because it does not lose much electricity in a circuit. Instead of transmitting an electrical current 60 times a second in order to display a still photo by conventional means, IGZO needs only one current, reducing typical power consumption to 10 to 20 percent.
Sharp is positioning IGZO as a core technology to resuscitate its struggling liquid crystal business, and plans to use it for smartphones and tablet devices.
"It's admirable that a Japanese manufacturer is the first to make this into a practical application," Hosono said. "It could re-energize Japan and make people understand the importance of basic research."
But Sharp is not running this race alone.
The policy at the JST, which holds the basic patent for IGZO, is to provide the technology to any company from around the world that concludes a licensing agreement, which costs several hundreds of millions of yen.
In addition to Sharp, the JST also has announced that it concluded an agreement with Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea. It is thought that Samsung wants to use the technology in next-generation, high-definition panels bigger than those made for smartphones.
The JST has also signed agreements with other companies whose names it has not made public.
The JST is still getting a stream of inquiries from companies in Japan and abroad. On May 15, it posted an "urgent message" on its website to show the content of its patent to companies considering using IGZO for their business.
Koichi Kitazawa, former JST president, pointed out that Samsung, rather than Sharp, was the first to conclude a licensing agreement for the IGZO basic patent.
"How to use the results of taxpayer-funded research is an extremely thorny question of national interest," Kitazawa said during a recent interview. "But if there are no military or other such applications, then the international consensus in the world of scientific and technological research is to leave the door open to foreign companies."
He added that advanced nations such as Japan have a responsibility to invest in science and technology, and that it is something Japan can be proud of.
"If the East Asia region as a whole grows, then that is hugely beneficial to Japan as well," Kitazawa said.
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