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The future's organic

Issue 46 Dec / Jan 2008/9

Whilst the growth in the white LED market is a reflection of the future potential of the technology, there is another breed of super low-Wattage light source which looks certain to play a major role in the future of lighting. Andy Davies of GE Lighting explains why the future is organic.

LED technology is advancing at a rapid pace. As the demand for energy efficient and eco-friendly lighting technology grows, manufacturers are competing to develop more advanced products, breaking records for lumen per Watt efficacy and enhanced light output.

Recognising the potential of LEDs, the government has even launched a procurement project designed to accelerate the adoption of LED lighting in the public sector. There is little doubt that the LED has established itself as an eco friendly and ultra efficient lighting alternative to Halogen or CFL technology and we are seeing LEDs being used in increasingly varied applications.

LEDs provide exciting opportunities for businesses, architects, lighting designers and anyone seeking to achieve improved energy–efficient lighting whilst also expanding their lighting design capabilities. We are always reading about new and innovative lighting applications made possible by LEDs, as demonstrated in the pages of Mondo arc.

But there is another breed of super low-Wattage light source which will be playing a major role in the future of lighting, bringing with it an even more diverse range of applications – the Organic Light Emitting Diodes or OLEDs.

Although there is some similarity in the techniques used to produce light through these technologies, it is important to note that an OLED is not a next generation LED.  The lighting effects they create are very different and, as both develop, there may be competing applications, but most of the time I imagine they are far more likely to be complementary to each other.

OLEDs are so called because their light-emitting layer is made up of a film of organic compounds (i.e. compounds which contain carbon). Whereas LEDs produce light from a semiconductor, OLEDs take advantage of organic matter to produce diffuse, low glare light in the form of a flat sheet. Where LEDs emit light from a bright single point, OLEDs provide good quality, excellent resolution and efficiency in a flat display.  The best analogy is to compare a fluorescent fitting to a spot light.

OLED technology is used in electronic display applications today, such as mobile phones, MP3 players, and even the first TV, launched recently by Sony. For lighting technology, however, it is still early days for OLEDs and the first GE product is planned for launch in 2010. 

The first generation of products will have some limitations in terms of performance, with useful lifetime a particular challenge right now, but with technological advances being made every day the potential for a diffuse light source less than 1mm thick is huge.

Future applications for OLEDs could include large panels or a “wallpaper” of light for signage or decoration. There is no doubt such a paper-thin, flexible, low glare light source will provide an entirely new way to light your home or business with an abundance of potential applications, some as yet unimagined and perhaps even unimaginable.

GE scientists are now adapting the technology used in OLED displays to the next level to use OLEDs in general illumination applications. This presents a different set of challenges than displays and we have already made major advancements in efficacy and quality of light. For example our first generation product is expected to deliver approximately 50 lumens per watt with Ra80+ at 3000K. Currently the major technical hurdles involve getting to even higher efficiency, life at high brightness, and low cost device architectures.

Earlier this year we successfully demonstrated the first roll-to-roll manufactured OLEDs, a process similar to newspaper printing, which will dramatically reduce the costs of production.  The future success of OLEDs in commercial lighting applications is heavily dependent on low manufacturing costs, and this demonstration was a major milestone on our way to developing low cost OLED lighting devices.

Over the past eight years, GE has achieved multiple worldwide breakthroughs in the quality, size, brightness, efficiency, and roll-to-roll manufacturing of white OLEDs. However, we are not satisfied and our sights are set on achieving OLED technology that topples the quality of highly efficient fluorescent lighting.  Only five years ago LEDs could not have replaced halogen lamps, now they do so routinely. In five years time we will see some of the most exciting lighting applications to date, with OLEDs leading the way.

The search for the most attractive applications for OLEDs will drive the creative process and further the development of the technology over the next few years. Architects and lighting designers will have a significant role to play as we work together to bring tomorrow’s lighting innovations to life, the future is definitely organic.


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