Plastic Lights

Those of us that have some connection to the technology business are used to talking about energy consumption in our portable gadgets and in our data centers.  It’s easy to forget that one of the first uses of electricity, the provision of artificial light, is still one of the major sources of demand.  It’s estimated that lighting accounts for about 19% of global electricity use.  Many folks underestimate the portion of their electricity bill that goes to keeping the lights on.

In recent years, public awareness of the energy cost of lighting has been increased, in part by the introduction of alternatives to the conventional incandescent lamps (especially compact fluorescent lamps), and the phasing out of incandescent lamps in some places.  The new alternatives do offer better energy efficiency, and sometimes longer life; however, they cost more to purchase, and some (again, especially compact fluorescents) emit light whose spectrum is quite different from either natural light or traditional lighting.  In addition, compact fluorescent lamps contain mercury, making their proper disposal essential.

The BBC News is reporting that a new type of lighting device, made primarily of plastic polymers, has been developed that may help address these problems.

US researchers say they have developed a new type of lighting that could replace fluorescent bulbs.  The new source is made from layers of plastic and is said to be more efficient while producing a better quality of flicker-free light.

Some plastic polymers exhibit a phenomenon called field-induced polymer electroluminescence (FIPEL) in the presence of an alternating current (AC) electric field.  A group of researchers, led by Dr. David Carroll, professor of physics at Wake Forest University, have found that adding a small amount of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs) to plastic layers in a FIPEL device can increase the light output by a factor of five.  This result appears to be due to two effects of the added MWNTs: they increase field-induced polarization currents, and they modify energy-level alignments in the device.  The research has been published in the journal Organic Electronics [abstract].

Dr. Carroll says that lamps made with this technology overcome many problems with existing devices.

“What we’ve found is a way of creating light rather than heat. Our devices contain no mercury, they contain no caustic chemicals and they don’t break as they are not made of glass.”

He says that the new lamps are also cheap to make, and that an interested “corporate partner” might begin to produce them as early as next year.

It’s still quite possible that some snags will be encountered between getting the devices to work in the lab, and delivering a finished product.  But the idea is certainly appealing; I’d gladly give up the trip to an authorized disposal point to get rid of worn-out fluorescent lamps, and  something closer to natural light would make my eyes happier, too.

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