OLED Lighting: Switch Now or Wait?

05/01/2015 | By Janelle Penny

Why this planar light source is gaining ground

OLED Lighting applications

The flexibility and thinness of OLED sheets are helping establish the technology’s place in the TV market, but lighting manufacturers are now using those same properties to create high-end architectural fixtures and task lamps.

Trumpeted as a solution for high-end TVs, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology is beginning to emerge as a viable lighting alternative for commercial applications. The same properties that make it desirable for luxury flat-screen televisions – namely, its brightness and super-slim form factor – show promise for lighting applications too.

Indeed, lighting manufacturers are starting to wade into the OLED market, with Acuity Brands and Philips Lighting each releasing thin OLED fixtures within the last year.

Both technologies are classified as solid-state lighting, a type of lighting system that relies on semiconductors that convert electricity into light rather than filaments or gases encased in glass bulbs. However, the similarities end there. Differences in the materials and manufacturing processes used to make the two light sources lead to differing characteristics in the finished products.

“One of the main distinguishing characteristics of an LED is that it’s a point source, which makes it a good choice for directional applications. However, if you were to look directly at the diodes, they’re extremely bright – maybe up to 1 million candelas per square meter,” explains Jeannine Wang, director of business development for Acuity Brands’ OLED Business Group. “In order to be able to use the light in a useful fashion, glare control is a big consideration. You need optics to control the light from an LED source.”

OLEDs, on the other hand, are thin sheets (less than 2 mm thick). Light is produced by the whole sheet instead of by a diode, but the light is less bright than that of an LED, so it’s comfortable to view directly without the aid of a diffuser or other optics.

The thinness of the finished product is increasingly leading manufacturers to high-end architectural fixtures and task lights – in other words, “following the same path LED did before it,” says Ethan Biery, LED engineering leader for Lutron.

Lifetimes for OLED haven’t quite caught up to LED (30,000-40,000 hours vs. 50,000-plus for LEDs), but they’re moving in the right direction.

“OLED technology is still several years behind regular LEDs, so a lot of the things people are struggling with now were solved for LEDs years ago,” Biery adds. “However, the technology is rapidly improving. A lot of that has to do with the DOE – they’re pouring research and development dollars into incentivizing manufacturers to invest in better technologies and equipment. OLEDs are still a few years out from mass commercial adoption, but you can already find some residential OLED fixtures in Home Depot.”

Best Practices
Ready to take the plunge and try out an OLED fixture in your facility? Take these tips into consideration as you compare products.

1) Don’t neglect electronics. “A lot of the focus right now is on the neat things OLED can do, but it all comes back to the driver behind it,” Biery says. “If you don’t have the right driver, the control, dimming, and performance of the overall system can vary. The driver is like the transmission of the car – it makes sure everything else is working. If you don’t have that, the fixture is going to fail.”

2) Make sure your fixtures are sealed properly. The organic materials in OLEDs are more susceptible to environmental contamination and moisture than LEDs, Biery explains.

Without proper sealing, these contaminants can degrade OLED components, so make sure to evaluate potential purchases to ensure good manufacturing practices.

3) Evaluate OLEDs just like any other light source. “Today, there are really no technical challenges for using OLEDs. It’s a cost budgeting consideration,” says Wang. “In terms of installation, they’re no different than other lighting products, and the drivers are basically identical to what you’d see for LEDs.”

Adds Biery, “The questions to ask an OLED vendor are the same ones you’d ask a regular vendor – you’ll want to know about performance and warranty.”

Janelle Penny janelle.penny@buildings.com is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

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