IMAGINE lighting panels a fraction of the thickness of a human hair, harnessing the light of the sun to power the lighting needs of a world keen to rid itself of the burden of high electricity bills and the threat of climate damage.
This is the day job of lighting pioneer Dr Geoff Williams, who is leading a consortium of university and business experts in the bid to explore the potential of energy-efficient printable electric lighting.
Dr Williams was investigating the potential of organic lighting in an academic capacity back in the 1990s as part of his PhD at Durham University, and has been pushing for more research into such technologies for much of his time at County Durham lighting manufacturer Thorn Lighting.
He said: “It’s been my baby since at least 2005, but I’ve really been banging on the table since 2003. I was able to convince the business we should be looking at organic lighting.
“We got funding, which led to the other businesses involved in this project saying they believe the technology has legs and more companies coming on board because they see an opportunity that could be realised.
“There’s huge potential for cost savings for businesses, but it’s also really important from an environmental perspective.
“Thanks to the work of bodies such as One North East and the creation of Narec, the CPI and PETEC, we have a genuine opportunity through existing and emerging businesses to create a hi-tech green manufacturing capability in the North East which serves as a global beacon.”
Dr Williams is leading a team that consists of Thorn Lighting, Cambridge Display Technology, Tridonic, Pilkington and Conductive Inkjet Technologies, as well as Durham University researchers.
The part-government-funded initiative, known as the Topdrawer project, is a £4.3m, two-year plan to study the potential of manufacturing printed lighting in Britain.
A large-scale demonstration model for the panels could be built in early 2012, and the project has already won the Environmental Technology Collaboration award at the Engineer’s Technology and Innovation Awards.
Dr Williams says the project is looking at a step change in the size in lighting panels. The team aims to create panels 50 nanometres thick – or approximately a 2,000th of the thickness of a human hair – but over a wider area of up to 250 square centimetres.
He said: “We have the confidence we can produce devices that will work. It’s what they look like when there are variations in layer thickness. In the lighting industry, you can have cold light which is blue and warm light which is red.
“When we apply voltage across the panel we want to make sure it doesn’t look blotchy.”
The Topdrawer project, which began two months ago, is building on the work of the £3.3m Topless project, which has been investigating organic polymer LEDs since 2007.
The Government has backed the Topdrawer project by funding half of the funding through the Technology Strategy Board, and Dr Williams is in discussions with companies and European Commission representatives in Brussels about projects to push energy-efficient lighting worldwide.
While Dr Williams said the location of any manufacturing facility would be a business decision, it is a strong possibility that the North East would be at the front of the queue, thanks to the work of centres such as Sedgefield’s Printable Electronics Technology Centre, Thorn’s close relationship with Durham University and County Durham’s status as the company’s UK headquarters.
This would provide benefits in terms of hundreds of jobs, but the benefits of the technology could be felt worldwide.
It is completely recyclable and could have a huge effect on developing economies in South America, Asia and Africa as well as developed nations.
Dr Williams said: “There are huge advantages. We can take lighting off the grid so we’re not so much relying on power stations but a renewable energy source such as the sun.
“Over the next three to five years I would expect to see Government funding much bigger, more complicated projects in areas such as completely carbon neutral building design.
“I think we’ve got to look at the big picture. We’re not just selling a lightbulb. We’re selling an opportunity.”