Ever since the environmental crimes of the incandescent light bulb condemned it to obsolescence, the search has been on for alternatives more acceptable than the mercury-filled compact fluorescent light and the LED, both producing inferior and unappealing illumination.
Thanks to a trick of nature, there is such an energy-efficient, earth-friendly alternative: organic luminescence (OL), as witnessed at the tail-end of a firefly. After centuries of marvelling at such an alluring, spontaneous light source, scientists have now succeeded in replicating this natural glow and making it available at the flick of a switch, first for brighter television screens and now for the next generation of lighting.
Amazingly thin (less than 2mm thick) and flat, and with little heat dissipation, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) can be embedded into most materials with ease. The light they give is diffused and akin to the spread of warm sunlight.
"That gives designers almost limitless scope to mould and meld OLEDs into everyday objects, scenes and surfaces, from chairs and clothing to walls, windows and tabletops," according to electronics company Philips, which is among the first to produce such lighting commercially. "As a result, not only could ambient lighting become an integral part of an object or building but also designers could use light itself to shape products and architecture."
Although the technology is still expensive and in the early stages of development, Philips has just launched the OLED Lumiblade range. Because of its limited performance, it currently allows only for small, decorative work. Because of its experimental nature, the first product is a kit aimed at designers and architects.
The Japanese, too, have long been involved in perfecting the new light source. Recently, electronics manufacturer Konica Minolta invited designers to come up with applications for the adaptable new lights, the panels for which they will put on the market next year.
Tokyo-based architect Yuko Nagayama produced a concept house where she uses OLED lighting to imagine a completely new living environment. Glass-walled inner spaces that contain gardens during the day transform into lighting sources at night. The prototypes she was shown that inspired her "Crystals of Light House" are transparent OLEDs buried in glass.
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