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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Light Bulbs

OLED researchers working to make flat, futuristic lighting a reality

A new program at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seeks to make OLED lighting more practical to manufacture -- and more affordable for consumers.

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The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) might be the next big thing in lighting. Like regular LEDs, they promise dramatic cuts in power consumption, and with a naturally diffused glow that's a lot easier on the eyes, the potential for creative new design applications is immense. Above all, there's a fun, futuristic sort of appeal with flat-paneled OLED lighting -- after all, how many sci-fi flicks have light bulbs in them?

Manufacturers are starting to embrace that potential, with big names like Acuity Brands, LG and Philips already working to get ahead of the lighting curve. Still, OLED panels remain prohibitively expensive for most consumers, a reality that's made today's OLEDs into something of a niche novelty.

It's an especially hard truth for smaller brands and startups that lack the technical expertise and manufacturing muscle of those bigger names. OLEDs are trending in the right direction, with new designs, better quality and lower costs, but there's still a long way to go on all fronts. Without a strong technical focus, smaller names simply aren't equipped to drive that effort.

That's where the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York hopes to come in, with a new program aimed at helping small manufacturers develop energy-efficient OLED lighting products that deliver value. Supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the LRC's OLED Lighting Education and Application Program (OLED-LEAP) seeks to offer manufacturers technical design guidance, prototype evaluation, performance testing and measurement and professional education on OLED development.

Established in 1988, Renssalaer's Lighting Research Center was the first university research program to offer graduate degrees in lighting, and boasts 30,000 square feet of laboratory space with photometric testing facilities and a full-time faculty and staff. That's a lot of lighting know-how for manufacturers to take advantage of -- particularly smaller names in need of technical expertise to help develop their ideas.

It'll still be years before OLEDs become a viable, mainstream lighting option, but efforts like this coupled with established manufacturing interest from the key players in the space should accelerate things. The bottom line: that sci-fi style of lighting might be here a lot sooner than you might think.