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From Clear Screens to Clear Cards

Posted August 30, 2012

Whether you’re watching TV, surfing the Internet or looking up information on your smart phone, one thing is clear: the experience would be meaningless without a bright screen that is easy to see. It’s something people take for granted in their everyday lives, but the clear screen and energy efficiency of such devices largely rely on one key area: optical science.

This is a category of innovation where 3M has been making an impact for nearly a century, producing high-performance, energy-saving products that people hold in their hands every day.

Who knew that the light of day could be harnessed to create fun experiences in people’s lives? With an understanding of how light bounces, reflects and illuminates, 3M scientists work with interesting materials to explore the unpredictable path of innovation. In the electronics industry, we use very thin films containing hundreds of nanolayers to help screens appear brighter to the viewer. In fact, the reflective power of 3M multilayer optical films, which are no thicker than a Post-it® Note, is 10 times that of a conventional mirror!

This reflected light affects everything from laptops to hand-held portable electronic devices to automotive and avionic displays.

The benefits are clear... but the curious nature of 3M scientists would never limit such interplay with optics to just one pathway. The pursuit of possibility soon led innovators to an unlikely destination: our wallets. When a major credit card business asked about using 3M film in the design of a credit card that would be different from their competitors’, 3M scientists drew on their know-how on making electronic display screens brighter and more energy-efficient. Optical film not only had multiple layers, but also multiple opportunities, including the development of a new credit card that could be transparent and show snazzy designs – a feat never before possible.

The first readable credit card that was transparent was made possible, because scientists figured out how to block infrared light without blocking visible light, so that ATMs wouldn’t jam. It marked one of the biggest developments in financial cards since plastic.

Reflecting light in unprecedented ways circumvented a conventional law of physics that had been accepted for nearly 200 years. Now, transparent cards offer credit card makers more surface area to incorporate designs into the plastic, enabling a customized look that appeals to card-carrying consumers while making the company’s brand stand out.

When it comes to innovation at 3M, there are indeed no clear boundaries.

How do you go from a brighter screen to an eye-catching credit card?

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