Tech Innovation

Goodbye light bulbs, hello OLED lighting, laser headlights and graphene filaments


Consider the light bulb. It’s changed little since Thomas Edison began selling his carbon filament design in the 1880s, with the bulk of improvements occurring in terms of energy efficiency as scientists have developed better filaments.

But now, as countries all around the world are phasing out the traditional incandescent bulbs, there’s a real chance for something totally different to rise to the fore and it might not be what you think.

LED bulbs have exceptional energy efficiency. But there are other options…

You’ve probably seen the leading contenders — the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), which is highly energy efficient but slow to reach full brightness, and the light­-emitting diode, or LED, which has exceptional energy efficiency and can produce white rather than yellowish light but only recently became cheap enough to consider a viable option for general use.

Commercial LED bulbs last an order of magnitude longer and use a sixth of the power of incandescent bulbs at the same luminescence — making them a likely long­ term successor to the light bulb, especially if their price continues to slide down towards CFL and halogen bulbs.

But there are many other technologies shining their way into the market and lighting up research laboratories around the world. One is closely related to LEDs. OLEDs, or organic light emitting diodes, differ from LEDs in that they’re made up of flat films that light up when fed an electric current. The panels allow for some striking lighting designs as you can see below.

A chandelier made from OLED lighting panels
New lighting technologies enable new lighting designs, like this DNA Helix Concept chandelier using Philips Lumiblade GL350 OLED panels.

OLED panels like the Lumiblade technology from Philips are ideally suited to use in ceilings and walls, especially as they produce a dimmer, more diffuse light that is gentle on the eyes. And it’s a technology that’s ready for market now.

OLED lighting has promise, but panels are much more expensive than LED bulbs

A report from 2014 suggests that OLED panels may make major inroads in commercial lighting in 2016 and perhaps become a leading technology in the next decade. But first their price will need to come down considerably, as OLED lighting currently works out around 10 to 100 times more expensive than conventional alternatives.

Some emerging lighting solutions steer more closely to the maturing LED tech, but push it in new directions. CoeLux, for instance, uses nanostructures to scatter LED light in the same way that tiny particles in the atmosphere scatter sunlight in different parts of the world, thereby acting as an artificial skylight.

LEDs aren’t the be all and end all, though. Since announcing the technology in late 2013, BMW has been switching its cars over to laser­-powered headlights.

Other manufacturers such as Audi are following suit. The promise here is that lasers can beam out a much, much brighter blue-­tinged white light than even LEDs at a fraction of the energy and focused into a small area.

Laser headlights put less strain on your eyes

That means drivers will be able to see objects more clearly, and because the beam is at the blue end of the white light spectrum — just as our eyes are tuned at night — it’ll also put less strain on your vision. (And don’t worry about safety — the laser beam is converted into harmless non-­laser light before it gets reflected onto the road.)

Further into the future we may see wonder material graphene become a prominent light-­generating technology. The versatile carbon allotrope has been used to develop what could very soon become a commercial light bulb — though scant details have been revealed and experts aren’t convinced that there’s any impending graphene-­based lighting revolution.

From light bulb to light 'chip' -- is this the future of home lighting?
Future light bulbs could well be light ‘chips’ with advanced graphene filaments that are only an atom thick.

Graphene also made headlines recently for its use in the world’s thinnest light bulb. Engineered by a team of scientists from Columbia, Seoul National University (SNU), and the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS), the bulb is just one atom thick but easily visible with the naked eye.

This new light source can be integrated into silicon chips for potential purposes that scientists are only just beginning to wrap their minds around.

It probably won’t light up homes of the future like LEDs and OLEDs, or shine the path ahead like lasers, but graphene could be the future of lighting, only more likely on a microscale. — Richard Moss (@MossRC)

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