Beyond the bulb

Old-school incandescent light bulbs are going the way of the dodo — already illegal in Europe and soon enough in the United States as well. Mostly CFLs will replace them in the near term, but as the price of LEDs drop, many expect them to become the bulb of choice. What comes after that? Perhaps we’ll ditch the bulbs altogether, and start using OLEDs:

> Because OLED panels are just 0.07 of an inch thick and give off virtually no heat when lighted, one day architects will no longer need to leave space in ceilings for deep lighting fixtures, just as homeowners do not need a deep armoire for their television now that flat-panel TVs are common.

The “O” stands for organic, a reference to the chemistry underlying these otherworldly lights. Right now OLED show up mostly in cell phone displays and other specialized uses, but in the long-term designers see the most potential in lighting applications.

> Because OLED panels could be flexible, lighting companies are imagining sheets of lighting material wrapped around columns. (General Electric created an OLED-wrapped Christmas tree as an experiment.) OLED can also be incorporated into glass windows; nearly transparent when the light is off, the glass would become opaque when illuminated…

> Armstrong World Industries and the Energy Department collaborated with Universal Display to develop thin ceiling tiles that are cool to the touch while producing pleasing white light that can be dimmed like standard incandescent bulbs. With a recently awarded $1.65 million government contract, Universal is now creating sheetlike undercabinet lights.

Widespread use is still a long ways off, due to the prohibitive cost of OLEDs. But manufacturers are pouring vast amounts of research dollars into the technology, and it’s only a matter of time before products start showing up in retail stores.

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  1. Vir Modestus - September 23, 2009

    If OLEDs and other LEDs are able to provide a warm yellow light that doesn’t flicker, then I hope that the US does not outlaw incandescent bulbs before OLEDs are cost-effective
    CFLs are horrible: they flicker, the color is wrong, they give me headaches. Yes, I’ve tried the latest. No, they have not improved all that much over ten years ago that I have seen. If I have to give up useful, comfortable light in order to save energy, I hope there will be some alternatives to CFLs.

  2. Gabriele - September 23, 2009

    I have replaced 90% of the incandescent in my house with the latest in higher end CFLs. I do NOT get “flicker”, there is instant on technology that gets rid of the warm up time. And in my bathroom fixtures I have CFL’s designed in the warm light wavelength, that doesn

  3. CherylK - September 23, 2009

    I agree about the varying quality of LEDs. There IS a difference. It’s a matter of trial and error but I would much rather pay a little more for a better quality bulb. I’m all for the OLEDs as soon as they’re consumer ready.

  4. KRon - September 23, 2009

    Would love to hear more about these higher quality CFLs designed to provide light in various parts of the spectrum. Gabriele, please refer me to websites that provide reliable information. Thanks for alerting us to this and for sharing your positive experience with them. I’m about to relocate and would really like to outfit our new place with this kind of energy-saving quality.

  5. Vir Modestus - September 23, 2009

    I’m glad to hear that you have had such a positive experience. It is certainly possible I’m shopping in the wrong place or bought the wrong brand. I’d love to be wrong about this one. If you could provide recommendations, I would really appreciate it.

  6. judith - September 23, 2009

    I’m in the migraine/headache camp. While applauding the energy savings of cfl’s and the death of incandescent bulbs, i am very concerned that I will need to be living with dark glasses on all the time and avoiding most public places. We are about to do some re-modeling – suggestions of good cfl’s would be very welcome.

  7. bcone - September 23, 2009

    It’s about time someone mentioned the future of lighting beyond cfl’s. LED technology has been around for a while, they burn much less electricity then cfl’s. I wasn’t quite sure why the government hasn’t done more to promote this technology. I understand it takes a while to integrate the new technology and bring down the cost.

  8. RussInSanDiego - September 23, 2009

    I hope they do NOT legislate on specific technologies. They should be legislating on specifications for lighting.
    In other words, incandescent lighting might not be a dead technology, based on some recent developments on filament design. It would be a shame if sales of incandescent lights were made illegal if they ended up being as efficient as LED, OLED, or CFL.
    Legislate on lux/watt, not technology.
    I feel precisely the same way about legislation promoting hybrid cars (even though I have one). They should be legislating on efficient cars, encouraging innovation, not specific technologies.
    Promoting hybrids, per se, yields things like subsidies for hybrid Hummers and the like.

  9. Kevin Wright - September 23, 2009

    Try GLOBE brand lights. I actually get them for free from the city of Chicago (they give them out like candy at a parade) and I’m very pleased, they are not super-bright when first turned on but they do not flicker, they have a soft “incandescent like” glow and are only 13 watts. I’m also very picky about my lighting and these seem to be the best around. Fleet and Sylvania (the ones at Menards, Lowes, or Home Depot) are OK but just don’t stack up to the Globe.

  10. Donna - September 23, 2009

    Fluorescent lights or incandescent lights don’t really make a difference on my electric bill. I use an Ott light when I am working on a painting or woodburning. The ceiling lights are all fluorescent lights. But, I try to keep them turned off and only turn them on if I have to. I have seen a difference though between the fluorescent lights that I tend to buy vs. the ones the housing maintenance guys tend to buy. I’ve tried to use compact fluorescent lights in lamps and other areas that normally would have incandescent lights. The problem that I’ve found is that the compact fluorescent lights tend to burn out sooner.
    Would I use a flexible light panel as described in the article? Maybe, depending on a variety of factors, with cost being at the top of the list.

  11. Steve S. - September 23, 2009

    I just had a remodeling project done on my house where most of the standard light switches were replaced with dimmers. The contractor told me that a dimmed incandescent bulb saves as much energy as a CFL. I’m sure this depends on how much you dim the lights, but I’m curious to know if anyone has any data on this. Also I’ve heard that dimmable CFLs leave a lot to be desired. Has anyone had experience with a good dimmable CFL bulb?

  12. Roger T. - September 23, 2009

    As for dimmed incandescent bulbs, they have to be at at least half power before the filament gets to a high enough temperature to give off anything beyond infrared. Remember that incandescents are only about 5% efficient at producing light; they’re fine as electric heaters. (Double-lifetime ones are even worse from the extra filament support reducing overall filament temperature.) The reason halogen bulbs are twice as efficient as normal incandescent bulbs is that the filaments are able to sustain much higher temperatures without burning out; go in the other direction and you have a dull red mini heater. The electrician was full of it; he probably didn’t want to get into reduced bulb lifetime issues with dimmed conventional CFLs, which get along with dimmers about as well as mice get along with cats.

  13. Brian - September 28, 2009

    CFL sales are declining without the support of continued incentive programs:
    I am not sure the public is embracing them as a short-term solution to anything right now.

  14. Peter - September 28, 2009

    Halogen lights are the pits!
    I live in the tropics and the heat emitted by them is high and unwanted in a warm climate. They might do as de facto heaters in a cold climate [ where they were used mostly]. However, they are common in many houses [ugh!].
    We have undimmed CFL and fluorescent lights – and looking at LED. I think there are some people for which the only possible CFL to use is the “shielded” double glass type, and even then, they may still be troubled. A lot has been written in the literature about this issue.
    However, most people are not affected.
    Conventional LED prices are falling quickly – and in commercial areas, the extended life, which means lower maintenance due to longer periods between replacement, as well as lower energy costs, will drive a BIG switch very soon.

  15. gatcheson - October 1, 2009

    Good dimmable CFLs are a problem, especially since the ballast tends to use almost as much electricity when dimmed. But what your contractor told you about dimming incandescent is on the right track: it radically increases the lifespan of the bulb (almost double) and reduces the energy use. But it does not cut the energy use as much as a CFL.

  16. gatcheson - October 1, 2009

    I agree with you on legislation for cars!
    Most commercial codes already legislate on watts (not any specific technology). The so-called international energy conservation code has been adopted 38 in states, including here in pennsylvania where I work in architecture (
    But in residences there is little pushing for energy reduction in lighting and lots of resistance to CFLs. So I think the ban on incandescent bulbs might be the best solution in this case.