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Why OLED lighting will soon shine on you

The flat-panel lighting tech is for sale at Home Depot starting at $200, providing a new energy-efficient alternative to LED lights.

Acuity Brands' Chalina, with five replaceable OLED panels, costs $300 at Home Depot.
Acuity Brands' Chalina, with five replaceable OLED panels, costs $300 at Home Depot. Acuity Brands

Undecided about whether to buy LED-based lights instead of compact fluorescent bulbs? Get ready to have some more uncertainty in your life, because another new lighting technology has just arrived: OLED.

Where LED (light-emitting diode) lighting uses small, intensely bright sources of light, which are typically made to look like traditional light bulbs, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting uses flat, dimmer sources of light, essentially resulting in a glowing square or rectangle. Steady advances in manufacturing technology have made OLEDs bright and long-lived enough to use, and now they're going mainstream: Acuity Brands, whose $2 billion in annual sales make it the largest lighting company in North America, is now selling OLED light fixtures in Home Depot.

Because OLED panels are not piercingly bright, they can be mounted in fixtures seen directly by the eye; there's no need for reflectors or diffusers to cut the glare. The approach also opens new options for lighting designs.

At Home Depot, Acuity is selling two fixtures, each in configurations that can be suspended or that can be mounted directly to a wall or ceiling. The $300 Chalina is like a four-petal flower, with four square OLED panels arranged around a central one. The Aedan uses two elongated panels facing opposite directions and costs $200. The company also offers a variety of OLED fixtures for commercial customers.

"OLED technology is at a premium relative to LED, but there are superior lighting quality benefits," said Jeannine Fisher Wang, director of business development and marketing for Acuity's OLED group. "The overall design and construction of these luminaires is very high quality, reflective of the superior nature of the OLED light source."

The Chalina has an output of 345 lumens and power consumption of 8 watts; the Aedan consumes 5 watts and each of its two panels produce 68 lumens. For comparison, an old-style 40-watt incandescent bulb can produce about 450 lumens, and a Cree LED bulb can generate 1,600 lumens with 18 watts . The OLED panels can be replaced.

OLED lighting elements have a lifespan of about 30,000 to 40,000 hours of use -- a bit less than LEDs that can reach 50,000 hours, but still more than quadruple what compact fluorescent bulbs offer.

Acuity faces an education challenge, Wang acknowledged, since consumers generally haven't heard of OLED lighting. "That is definitely an area where we're working," she said. She watched people seeing the OLED products when they first arrived at Home Depot. "It was their first experience of OLED. People stopped in their tracks when they saw the lights," she said.

Jeannine Fisher Wang, Acuity Brands' OLED marketing leader
Jeannine Fisher Wang, Acuity Brands' OLED marketing leader. Acuity Brands

Dominance to come?

OLED will become mainstream, predicts Darice Liu, a spokeswoman for Universal Display, a 144-employee company founded in 1994 that licenses hundreds of OLED-related patents to companies commercializing the technology.

"We believe that OLED lighting has the potential to dominate many of the residential and commercial market applications," Liu said.

Energy efficiency and new designs will provide the impetus, Liu predicted, with OLED and LED lighting coexisting because of different advantages.

"Inherent energy efficiency advantages are a key benefit in the lighting market, but there is the potential for OLEDs to be transformational as well. OLEDs will present lighting products in a new form factor, which will expand the design possibilities and change the way we use light in many environments," she said.

That's what Aurora Lighting Design, a lighting design firm in Chicago, evidently hopes to accomplish with offices redesigned using Acuity's Trilia OLED fixtures. Dozens of panels are arranged in geometric but somewhat organic patterns across the ceiling in a design that can be used both for commercial or residential use.

OLED lighting is showing up in more portable forms , too. Alkilu Lighting is taking preorders for its $50 free-standing LeafLit, whose battery provides 20 hours of light, the $50 DreamLit night light and the $40 BookLit reading light.

Next up: Colors and lower costs

Prices might be higher now, but they'll drop in coming years, Wang said.

"We're looking at the cost of OLED being maybe a tenth of what it is today in about five years," she said, referring to the price of the panel components themselves. Even as entry-level OLED lighting fixture prices drop, though, some products will continue to come with premium pricing as OLED lighting makers embrace the interactive element of the nascent LED lighting industry. There, smartphone apps and smart-home devices add new controls, new costs and new profit possibilities to the lighting market.

Alkilu Lighting's $60 TripLit is a battery-powered OLED display that can be propped up or hung from a built-in hook.
Alkilu Lighting's $60 TripLit is a battery-powered OLED display that can be propped up or hung from a built-in hook. Alkilu Lightint

"As technology integrates into homes, there are advances all over the place, like security systems and thermostats," Wang said. "People are expecting a lot more interaction and integration with other devices, like the ability to control things remotely when people aren't at home."

Another premium option that will arrive is colored OLED panels, though the cost is too high and color saturation too low right now. These will provide light whose color can be changed according to mood, time of day or other factors.

"We definitely see opportunities for that, not only in the consumer arena but commercially as well," Wang said. "There's huge interest -- corporate interiors, healthcare environments, education facilities. There are a lot of potential applications where color-tuning makes sense."

Regulatory help

She expects governmental regulations could help push OLED along with LED lighting. Specifically, Title 24, an energy standard in California, will mean the disappearance of older lighting technologies for new homes.

"It will pretty much obsolete the use of incandescent lighting. It may even obsolete a lot of compact fluorescent, particularly in low wattages where CFL efficacy isn't that high," Wang said. It's just one state, but, "Once California does something in energy standards, other states tend to follow suit."

Today OLED "is a bit under the efficacy requirements" of lumens per watt, she said, "but moving forward, the standard will probably address all lighting technologies through some definition of high efficacy pertinent to particular technologies."

OLED lighting's biggest push will come with lower prices, most likely, though.

"As the cost of OLED technology drops, you have the opportunity to play in the commodity product market," Wang said.