DVICE Exclusive: OLED breakthrough might mean luminous wallpaper is on the way

What if you could have an entire room wallpapered in flexible, paper-thin light? Maybe you could even control that light’s color and intensity in different areas. That's the goal of General Electric researchers (disclosure: GE owns DVICE's parent company, NBC Universal), who just achieved a breakthrough toward making that possible. The key to making this affordable is roll-to-roll processing, a method of manufacturing organic LEDs (OLEDs) that works a whole lot like a printing press.

While GE’s breakthroughs in cost and efficiency are impressive, their engineers are the first to admit the technology is not quite practical yet. Working just a few miles from the Schenectady, New York lab in which Thomas Edison and his fellow researchers developed the first tungsten lighting elements that made the light bulb commercially viable is Anil Duggal, Advanced Technology Leader for Organic Electronics at GE Global Research. His goal: to create an entirely new kind of lighting for the 21st century. We talked to him about his work, the promise of OLEDs, and the timeline for bringing OLED lighting tech into the home.

Lofty Lighting Goals
The ultimate hope of GE scientists is to make these wallpaper light sources cost-effective enough to coat entire rooms with the stuff. "The big fantasy product that we always talk about is lighting wallpaper,” Anil Duggal told DVICE. “We want all offices and homes to have this very flexible light source. When I say flexible, I mean a mechanically flexible light source that you can just paste wherever you want it and turn it on.”

These lights will also someday be able to create any color you desire. Duggal said, “We've proven that these things can be made color tunable, so that you can have different swatches of the room lit up in different colors. You can actually even make these things transparent, so you could even imagine putting it on a window.”

Cost Breakthrough
The GE researchers have a lot more work to do before we see such lights in everyday use. The stumbling block now is cost, and that's why Duggal and his colleagues are working on a manufacturing process they call “roll-to-roll.” Once perfected, the process would enable large quantities of these flexible OLEDs to be cranked out on conventional printing presses that are now used to coat plastics. The breakthrough? The printing technique costs a whole lot less than any OLED manufacturing technique ever attempted. How much cheaper? “It’s at least 10 times, probably more,” said Duggal.

He's making progress with the efficiency of OLED light, too. The benchmark of the lighting industry is lumens per watt (lm/W), and this latest OLED created by a GE can emit 30 lm/W. That's twice as efficient as incandescent bulbs, which commonly run at around 15 lm/W.

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Higher Efficiency
While that's a long way from the 100 lm/W efficiency of compact fluorescent bulbs, it’s just the beginning of the progress the GE scientists hope to make. Duggal said, “It's already been shown that you can make OLEDs in a different, more expensive process at 60 lm/W. Our current goal is to hit 60 lm/W as soon as possible with the roll-to-roll process. We're hoping, in the lab anyway, to get there very soon, before 2010.”

Duggal wouldn't say exactly when luminous OLED wallpaper would be available, but he did say it would be sometime after 2010. However, by 2010, his team plans to release its first marketable product. They're not exactly sure what that product will be, or at what price point it will be released, but Duggal says it won’t be a bargain-basement kind of device, at least at first.

The Ultimate Fantasy: Video Wallpaper
The ultimate fantasy, and one that GE is not specifically working toward at this point, is to blend high-resolution OLED displays with these OLED light sources. The result would be an entire room whose wallpaper could be used for either high-rez video or lighting. Duggal tells us the two technologies encompass different areas of OLED research and manufacturing, where the OLED displays deal with tiny pixels, each one red, green and blue. His lighting tech is more akin to big, long pixels. He adds, “So that ultimate fantasy may come true, but it's not what our current goal is.”

edisons_desk2.jpgDuggal and his research team are working just a few feet away from the actual desk (pictured at right) of lighting pioneer Thomas Edison, and are making great leaps toward changing the world of lighting as we know it. Duggal couldn't say exactly when these world-changing wallpaper-like lighting fixtures would be available at your neighborhood Home Depot, but the future looks bright. If the results of this team of researchers are any indication, 10 years from now, light bulbs will be passé.