MindBullets 20 Years


London’s new South Bank bathes in brilliant white light as the incandescent light bulb shatters

The lights went up last night in London as South Bank, the capital city’s new theatre and arts complex, was unveiled.

But this was no ordinary illumination. Overlooking the River Thames, South Bank has been hailed as an architectural masterpiece – and it boasts the most advanced lighting techno-logy in the world.

The energy-saving lights of the South Bank complex are not little glowing orbs dotted around the walls. Through the theatres and halls there is not a single incandescent light bulb or fluorescent tube to be seen.

Instead, like huge signs, the walls and ceilings emit a continuous white light, that diffuses in a subtle glow.

The lights are in the walls! The ceiling is the light! And it’s all running at a fraction of the normal cost. South Bank’s state of the art lighting is due to organic light emitting polymer technology – sheets of glowing plastics that emit light when electricity is passed through them.

And as this new technology went on, the incandescent light bulb and the price of tungsten went ‘pop’.

Has the $40 billion light bulb industry had its day?

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The incandescent light bulb changed the world – the Industrial Revolution partly depended on it.

1878: First bulb invented

It has been around a while. 132 years in fact, since the English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, invented it in 1878, one year before Thomas Edison – who got the glory. While Wilson Swan’s carbon fiber filament bulb burned for 13.5 hours, Edison placed his filament in an oxygenless bulb and it burned for 40 hours.

1980s: Light-emitting diodes

The next revolution in light came in the 1980s, in the form of light-emitting diodes that lit traffic signs and formed the numbers on digital displays. LEDs are illuminated solely by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material, such as silicon. Unlike ordinary incandescent bulbs, they don’t have a filament that will burn out and they don’t get especially hot.

1989: Organic light emitting polymers

Then in 1989 came organic light emitting polymers (OLEPs). This new generation of glowing plastics responded to an electrical current by giving off visible radiation. Discovered at Cambridge University, and subsequently widely developed by Cambridge Display Technology Ltd, OLEPs removed the need for a silicon-based chip.

Light emitting polymer is an emissive technology. It comprises a fluorescent organic layer, sandwiched between two metal electrodes. Light radiates as the electric current passes through.

OLEPs can be made in the form of thin sheets or films and offer a huge range of applications. Flat screen displays were one of the first products, but polymer can be rolled up and tossed in a briefcase. Clothes made in polymer and powered by a small battery pack could provide their own cinema show.

Whilst the earliest OLEPs were dim and inefficient, giving off a pale green light, the latest plastics are so bright they are difficult to look at directly. Red, green and blue lights were developed. Their neon hues flashed across the night streets and transformed the world’s display and advertising hoarding industry – worth $85 million in 2005.

But the jewel in the crown was white light.

Initially, OLEPs could emit light only over a very narrow range of wavelengths, so were poor for general lighting use. The ideal lighting source in a house or office is one that gives out a broad spectrum of light. Scientists first tried making white light from a number of differently colored light emitting diodes that spanned the visible spectrum, but this resulted in poor color stability.

2002: White light

Then, in 2002, researchers found they could stimulate polymers to phosphoresce. This resulted in a white light equivalent to some of the best commercial fluorescent bulbs at the time. Whilst these early lights compared to only 5% of the power efficiency of an incandescent bulb, and 20% of a fluorescent bulb, scientists knew their devices could outperform conventional lighting technologies, given the pace of research.

Why is this white light causing another revolution? Because it’s cheap and it’s flexible. Light emitting polymers can be grown with ease and affordability on virtually any surface. And they cheap to run: OLEPs will save billions of dollars in energy costs.

And then there is the effect – which is simply stunning. Large-area sources of light can be integrated into interior building materials such as ceiling panels and wallpaper. You can light brightly or you can diffuse it, in any shape, color or texture. Rooms with whole walls of light are being shown in the pages of the trendiest interior magazines.

2003: Value of light in future

If the general illumination industry was worth $40 billion in 2003, when the incandescent bulb still dangled in the middle of our rooms, how much more will the pure white light from organic light emitting polymers be worth in the years to come?

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.