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What Is OLED Lighting: And How Is It Different from LEDs?

By Jennifer Tuohy, Home Depot


Tags: lighting, home improvements, home energy, energy efficiency, Jennifer Tuohy,

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LED lighting has been a key factor in the energy-use revolution over the last decade. It’s amazing to think that something as innocuous as a light bulb has been at the forefront of educating consumers on how technology can cut our carbon footprint and improve our homes and businesses.

In just a few years, LED lighting went from niche uses to mainstream. Helped in part by a significant drop in price, total installations of LED bulbs in American homes more than doubled from 77 million to 202 million in just one year. That figure is even more impressive when compared to the fewer than 400,000 installations in 2009.

But will this dramatic shift from one technology to another repeat itself? Will our 25-year life span LED lightbulbs be obsolete in 10 years when another hot new green technology comes along? We won’t have to wait another decade to find out. That new technology is already here: organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs.

Estimated to be a $1.3 billion market by 2023, OLED lighting works by using thin layers of organic compounds to emit light through electric currents. In contrast, LEDs predominantly use the chemical yellow phosphor. Score one for OLEDs on the green scale. OLEDs also have no UV rays, whereas LEDs have some.

OLEDs differ significantly from LEDs in form. They are made in sheets that are incredibly thin and pliable, so they can be adapted to work in places LEDs can never go. They also emit light evenly, as opposed to the bright, concentrated light of LEDs—think the difference between a paintbrush and a pen.

Does this mean OLEDs are going to replace LEDs as a greener, cleaner light source? In short, no. But they will augment and enhance the quest for ultimate lighting efficiency. Due to technical limitations, OLEDs are not, and likely won’t ever be, available in the traditional bulb style. They come as flat panels, which can be replaced as you would a light bulb. Here is an example of a consumer OLED lighting fixture:

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Additionally, while OLEDs generate less heat than LEDs and are capable of a significantly higher color rendering index (CRI), they are currently much more expensive, have a shorter lumen life than LEDS and are not as bright—meaning you need up to twice as many to produce the same light as LEDs. They are also not yet able to produce color and are not as energy efficient as LEDs. When it comes to energy efficiency and longevity, LEDs are still in the lead.

So what are OLEDs good for now? Anywhere a smooth, diffused light of reasonable brightness is needed. From under-cabinet lighting to panels wrapped around a bathroom mirror, OLEDs provide a smooth, shadow free, non-glaring light—in contrast to most LED bulbs, which need diffusers and other effects to reduce glare and dissipate heat. This also makes OLEDs a good choice for overhead lighting in commercial office buildings and schools.

Where OLED won’t work is spotlighting, track or recessed lighting and anywhere you need point source light or long reach—LEDs will always win in those regards. What this means is that OLEDs are not a replacement for LEDs, but an enhancement. They fill in the gaps where LEDs don’t shine.

OLEDs also give us a glimpse into how we will light our homes in the future. Think about the sci-fi movies you’ve watched. Did you ever see a light bulb on the Starship Enterprise? The form factor of OLEDs is essentially what you saw in those futuristic worlds: diffused, flat light that glows gently from walls, ceilings and even floors.

Some companies have started to experiment with such futuristic uses, like using OLED panels in their display windows. Additionally, because of its flexibility, OLED lighting can be shaped into bold new designs far from your traditional light fixture.

"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," Darice Liu, of Universal Display, told CNET.

Switching America to LED lighting is still the holy grail that will generate enormous energy savings of 5.1 quads annually by 2035, according to energy.gov. While OLED technology is developing rapidly, it can’t outperform the dramatic reduction in electricity bills, enhanced energy security and significant environmental benefits LEDs provide.

However, as the cost of OLED drops, as we saw it do with LEDs, it will surely be a significant lighting source for our future.

Jennifer Tuohy is techie by heart and has a passion for seeing how tech can help with improving the environment. She provides great tips on how to use LEDs in your home. Click here to see some the LED light bulb options that The Home Depot has to offer. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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