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5 Tips to Operate LCD Displays in Cold Environments

Steven J Goodman
Written by Steven J Goodman
Posted on March 12, 2020 at 10:57 AM

The use of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in user interface assemblies is widespread across nearly all industries, locations, and operating environments. Over the last 20 years, the cost of LCD displays has significantly dropped, allowing for this technology to be incorporated into many of the everyday devices we rely on.

The odds are high you are reading this blog post on a laptop or tablet, and it’s likely the actual screen uses LCD technology to render the image onto a low-profile pane of glass. Reach into your pocket. Yes, that smartphone likely uses LCD technology for the screen. As you enter your car, does your dashboard come alive with a complex user interface? What about the menu at your favorite local drive-thru restaurant? These are some everyday examples of the widespread use of LCD technology.

But did you know that the U.S. military is using LCD displays to improve the ability of our warfighters to interact with their equipment? In hospitals around the world, lifesaving medical devices are monitored and controlled by an LCD touchscreen interface. Maritime GPS and navigation systems provide real-time location, heading, and speed information to captains while on the high seas. It’s clear that people’s lives depend on these devices operating in a range of environments.

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As the use of LCDs continues to expand, and larger screen sizes become even less expensive, one inherent flaw of LCDs remains: LCD pixels behave poorly at low temperatures. For some applications, LCD displays will not operate whatsoever at low temperatures. This is important because for mil-aero applications, outdoor consumer products, automobiles, or anywhere the temperature is below freezing, the LCD crystal’s performance will begin to deteriorate. If the LCD display exhibits poor color viewing, sluggish resolution, or even worse, permanently damaged pixels, this will limit the ability to use LCD technologies in frigid environments. To address this, there are several design measures that can be explored to minimize the impact of low temperatures on LCDs.

Example of a metal backed LCD display

1. Select an Off-the-Shelf LCD Display with the Appropriate Low-Temperature Rating


Most LCD displays utilize pixels known as TFT (Thin-Film-Transistor) Color Liquid Crystals, which are the backbone to the billions of LCD screens in use today. Since the individual pixels utilize a fluid-like crystal material as the ambient temperature is reduced, this fluid will become more viscous compromising performance. For many LCD displays, temperatures below 0°C represent the point where performance degrades.

Have you tried to use your smartphone while skiing or ice fishing? What about those of you living in the northern latitudes - have you accidently left your phone in your car overnight where the temperatures drop well below freezing? You may have noticed a sluggish screen response, poor contrast with certain colors, or even worse permanent damage to your screen. While this is normal, it’s certainly a nuisance. As a design engineer, the goal is to select an LCD technology that offers the best performance at the desired temperature range. If your LCD display is required to operate at temperatures below freezing, review the manufacturer’s data sheets for both the operating and storage temperature ranges. Listed below are two different off-the-shelf LCD displays, each with different temperature ratings. It should be noted that there are limited options for off-the-shelf displays with resilience to extreme low temperatures.

LCD Example #1

Item Symbol Condition Min. Max. Unit
Operating Temperature Range TOP Absolute Max 0 +50 °C
Storage Temperature Range TST Absolute Max -20 +60 °C

LCD Example #2

Item Symbol Condition Min. Max. Unit
Operating Temperature Range TOP Absolute Max -20 +70 °C
Storage Temperature Range TST Absolute Max -30 +80 °C

Example of LCD display with green video source

2. Consider Adding a Low-Profile Heater to the Rear of the LCD Display

For many military applications, in order to comply with the various mil standards a product must be rated for -30°C operational temperature and -51°C storage temperature. The question remains: how can you operate an LCD display at -30°C if the product is only rated for -20°C operating temperature? The answer is to use a heat source to raise the display temperature to an acceptable range. If there is an adjacent motor or another device that generates heat, this alone may be enough to warm the display. If not, a dedicated low-profile heater is an excellent option to consider.

Made of an etched layer of steel and enveloped in an electrically insulating material, a flat flexible polyimide heater is an excellent option where space and power are limited. These devices behave as resistive heaters and can operate off a wide range of voltages all the way up to 120V. These heaters can also function with both AC and DC power sources. Their heat output is typically characterized by watts per unit area and must be sized to the product specifications. These heaters can also be affixed with a pressure sensitive adhesive on the rear, allowing them to be “glued” to any surface. The flying leads off the heater can be further customized to support any type of custom interconnect. A full-service manufacturing partner like Epec can help develop a custom solution for any LCD application that requires a custom low-profile heater.

Example of a flexible polyimide heater

Example of a Polyimide flexible heater.

3. Incorporate Temperature Sensors and a Real-Time Feedback Loop

With no thermal mass to dissipate the heat, polyimide heaters can reach temperatures in excess of 100°C in less than a few minutes of operation. Incorporating a heater by itself is not enough to manage the low temperature effects on an LCD display. What if the heater is improperly sized and damages the LCD display? What happens if the heater remains on too long and damages other components in your system? Just like the thermostat in your home, it’s important to incorporate a real-temp temperature sensing feedback loop to control the on/off function of the heater.

The first step is to select temperature sensors that can be affixed to the display while being small enough to fit within a restricted envelope. Thermistors, thermocouples, or RTDs are all options to consider since they represent relatively low-cost and high-reliability ways to measure the display’s surface temperature. These types of sensors also provide an electrical output that can be calibrated for the desired temperature range.

The next step is to determine the number of temperature sensors and their approximate location on the display. It’s recommended that a minimum of two temperature sensors be used to control the heater. By using multiple sensors, this provides the circuit redundancy and allows for a weighted average of the temperature measurement to mitigate non-uniform heating. Depending on the temperature sensors location, and the thermal mass of the materials involved, the control loop can be optimized to properly control the on/off function of the heater.

Another important consideration when selecting a temperature sensor is how to mount the individual sensors onto the display. Most LCD displays are designed with a sheet metal backer that serves as an ideal surface to mount the temperature sensors. There are several types of thermally conductive epoxies that provide a robust and cost-effective way to affix the delicate items onto the display. Since there are several types of epoxies to choose from, it’s important to use a compound with the appropriate working life and cure time.

For example, if you are kitting 20 LCD displays and the working life of the thermal epoxy is 8 minutes, you may find yourself struggling to complete the project before the epoxy begins to harden.

Example of thermistors epoxied to rear LCD panel

4.Study the Heat Transfer of the System

Before building any type of prototype LCD heater assembly, it’s important to carefully study the heat transfer of the system. Heat will be generated by the flexible polyimide heater and then will transfer to the LCD display and other parts of the system. Although heat will radiate, convect, and be conducted away from the heater, the primary type of heat transfer will be through conduction. This is important because if your heater is touching a large heat sink (ex. aluminum chassis), this will impact the ability of the heater to warm your LCD display as heat will be drawn toward the heat sink.

Insulating materials, air gaps, or other means can be incorporated in the design to manage the way heat travels throughout your system on the way toward an eventual “steady state” condition. During development, prototypes can be built with numerous temperature sensors to map the heat transfer, allowing for the optimal placement of temperature sensors, an adequately sized heater, and a properly controlled feedback loop.

5. Incorporate Low-Temperature Testing in Your Development Plan

Before freezing the design (no pun intended) on any project that requires an LCD display to operate at low temperatures, it’s critical to perform low temperature first. This type of testing usually involves a thermal chamber, a way to operate the system, and a means to measure the temperature vs time. Most thermal chambers provide an access port or other means to snake wires into the chamber without compromising performance. This way, power can be supplied to the heater and display, while data can be captured from the temperature sensors.

The first objective of the low-temperature testing is to determine the actual effects of cold exposure on the LCD display itself. Does the LCD display function at cold? Are certain colors more impacted by the cold than others? How sluggish is the screen? Does the LCD display performance improve once the system is returned to ambient conditions? These are all significant and appropriate questions and nearly impossible to answer without actual testing.

Dummy display temperature chart

Temperature vs. time graph: 5 channels monitored with chamber at -35 degrees Celsius.

Summary

As LCD displays continue to be a critical part of our society, their use will become even more widespread. Costs will continue to decrease with larger and larger screens being launched into production every year. This means there will be more applications that require their operation in extreme environments, including the low-temperature regions of the world. By incorporating design measures to mitigate the effects of cold on LCD displays, they can be used virtually anywhere. But this doesn’t come easy. Engineers must understand the design limitations and ways to address the overarching design challenges.

A full-service manufacturing partner like Epec offers a high-value solution to be able to design, develop, and manufacture systems that push the limits of off-the-shelf hardware like LCD displays. This fact helps lower the effective program cost and decreases the time to market for any high-risk development project.


Topics: User Interfaces


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