Breakthrough set to bring OLED back from the dead

A three-year EU-funded study has discovered that a much simpler manufacturing method can cut the production costs of flexible OLED to just a tenth of current cost.


Organic light emitting diodes have struggled to compete with standard LED panels for lighting in buildings, as their extra slimness can’t justify their much higher price. Instead OLEDs have been used in electronic devices such as mobile phones and televisions.

But now a three-year EU-funded study – whose backers include Marks & Spencer and Tata Steel – has discovered that a much simpler manufacturing method can cut production costs to just a tenth of current costs, enough to match LEDs.

It’s hoped that the research of the Flexolighting programme, which will be made available to European manufacturers, will help herald a new era of low-cost, high-efficiency lighting products.

‘Flexolighting essentially deconstructed the OLED panel and re-imagined it as a series of individual elements that together can be repackaged to realise cost-effective and environmentally-less harmful solutions,’ Professor Poopathy Kathirgamanathan, chair professor in electronic materials engineering at Brunel told Lux.

Backed by €4.4 million (US$5.2 million) from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the group was set the ambitious challenge of reducing the cost of producing OLEDs down to around 1 euro (US$1.2) per 100 lumens – from their current position of around €15 (US$17.6) per 100 lumens.

By introducing a number of innovative techniques, such as ‘printing’ some of the OLED’s layers onto flexible steel rather than the more traditional glass, and using a newly developed light extraction film to double the OLED’s illumination, the group achieved a potential cost of €1.20 (US$1.4) per 100 lumens – or a 92 per cent reduction in cost.

‘We’ve pushed the state-of-the-art to achieve world firsts in processing technologies, used novel materials such as planarised flexible steel and developed transparent top contacts with metallic films,’ said Professor Kathirgamanathan.

‘We also proved thin film encapsulation, and showed how effective light extraction can be.

‘The result is a highly innovative concept. By breaking away from existing limitations, we now no longer need to rely on glass substrates and glass encapsulation – we can turn the OLED upside down, maintain conductivity with alternative anodes and cathodes, process the device in a new way and protect it with a thin film.

‘The end product is one that can be formed into an infinite number of design choices, and it was all made possible with European expertise and know-how.’

Whilst no products have yet been released using the group’s new techniques, it’s expected that they will find application in a number of industries, from domestic and commercial lighting, to cars and wearable technology.

‘Flexolighting is a very compelling proposition,’ said Professor Kathirgamanathan, ‘and it’s one that, thanks to the commercial success of OLED displays in the consumer electronics sector, is very easy to envisage becoming commercially fruitful in its own right.’