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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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