May 7, 2009

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Go organic
LEDs made without pesticides —  probably

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

As I type, it’s a bright, sunny April day. In New Hampshire, that means it’s about 55 degrees outside, but in comparison to the last six months, it’s positively balmy, so I’m outside.

Laptop screens don’t do so well outside. Not only are they just about the most power-hungry component of the portable computer, they also tend to wash out and become nearly impossible to read in the powerful sunshine. Technologies that compensate for these problems, like the electronic paper you find in many e-book readers, aren’t well-suited to traditional computing because they refresh very slowly and are still black-and-white only except for a few prototypes.

There is one kind of display seeping into some devices with better contrast and lower power requirements. It’s the Organic Light-Emitting Diode, or OLED. It’s not the kind of organic you’ll find at the natural food store — there are plenty of chemicals and laboratories involved in making this stuff. Polymers and plastics are the main ingredients, with the organic components made up of the same kinds of elements that come in living things rather than the silicons and other metals in typical electronics.

The LED part means pretty much what you’re used to, though — a small, self-illuminating point of light. Slap a million or two of those together and you have yourself a pretty nice video screen. Since they provide their own light, they don’t need the backlight that current screens depend upon to get bright enough to read.

Can you buy these things yet? Sure, but it’ll cost you. One of the first OLED devices to hit the market was a 7.6” digital photo frame from Kodak. An LCD version of this might set you back $70 if you insisted upon a brand name. The OLED frame is more than 10 times that, and debuted at a cool grand less than a year ago. There are a few small OLED televisions coming out now that also cost about 10 times as much as their LCD equivalents.

As with every emerging technology, the early adopters pay out the nose before prices come down enough for the masses to jump onboard. Manufacturers are using what amount to giant inkjet printers to spray OLED molecules onto sheets, which is much cheaper than their initial experimental methods.

Beyond lighting up the next generation of computer, phone and media player displays, OLEDs have a place in lighting up our houses as well. Just as compact fluorescents became the chic way to replace old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs and arrays of LEDs superseded the halogens in flashlights, OLEDs could soon illuminate everything around us. Once that inkjet printing process is refined, large sheets of the things could be cheaper — and certainly much thinner — than table and floor lamps. Paste a big one on the ceiling and bam, instant chandelier. Transparent or reflective sheets could double as windows or mirrors, and large sheets would be your wallpaper. Tomorrow’s televisions will probably be able to produce soft room lighting when not bringing you the latest Anti-Gravity Extreme Hockey game.

The display industry analyst firm DisplaySearch predicts that OLED lighting will start to “take off” in just two years. Might not want to stock up too heavily on those obsolete light bulbs.