Source: Time Magazine –  Thomas K. Grose

In the palm of my hand is a near paper-thin, rectangular glass tile with a mirror finish. It’s wired to an electric switch. Flick it on and the glass instantly lights up, emitting a warm, bright glow not unlike sunlight, although it remains cool to the touch. Switch it off and the glow immediately disappears. The wondrous object is an organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, a first cousin of the better-known LED. An embryonic technology — there are only a handful of commercial products available — OLED has the potential to revolutionize the world’s $100 billion lighting industry.

As the U.S. begins phasing out incandescent lightbulbs in 2012 — and Europe bans them altogether — the initial winning replacement technology will probably be superefficient, low-energy LEDs. But like incandescents, LEDs are bulbs, points of light. OLEDs, while low-energy, offer an entirely new form of lighting: a glow that radiates from the surface of superthin materials. “We’re used to thinking in terms of light points, but this is diffuse light,” says Kristin Knappstein, a business-development manager at Philips Electronics, which sells OLED tiles under the brand name Lumiblade. “That’s the disruptive nature of it.” (Get the latest tech news at

With OLEDs, naturalistic light can emanate from entire stretches of walls, ceilings, blinds or pieces of furniture. Another likelihood: transparent OLEDs doubling as windowpanes that let in sunlight by day, then create light by night. How do they work? Organic LEDs, like their inorganic kin, are essentially semiconductors. Ultra-thin layers of carbon-based, small-molecule semiconducting materials are sandwiched between electrodes — one positively charged, the other negatively — and encased in glass to protect them. When an electric charge is applied, the layers light up. Companies are working on OLEDs encased in bendable plastic that will give the lights another design dimension: flexibility. Welsh company Lomox has patented — and hopes to license — nanotechnologies that do away with the protective layer altogether. Lomox’s organic semiconductors are dispersed within chemicals that protect them from the elements, a process that also cuts manufacturing costs. The result is OLEDs that could be painted onto surfaces. “It’s like light-emitting wallpaper,” says CEO Ken Lacey. Britain’s government-funded Carbon Trust recently awarded a $691,000 grant to Lomox to help it develop the technology.

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