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The lightbulb, once a symbol of General Electric's (GE) ingenuity, has shrunk to such a small percentage of its sales over the years that GE tried, unsuccessfully, to sell off the business in 2008. As it turns out, the Connecticut-based conglomerate has been directing a research effort at making the screw-in bulb obsolete. Anil Duggal, a physical chemist at GE's research labs in upstate New York, says he may be about a year away from producing durable and green lighting that is neither incandescent nor fluorescent.
The technology is called organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs, not to be confused with LEDs, a different technology), and it could revolutionize the way the world is lit. GE's OLEDs will come in rolls of flexible sheets less than a tenth of an inch thick, and Duggal says their energy efficiency now matches compact fluorescents—with room for improvement. Their pliability opens the door to light-producing furniture, wallpaper (or ceilingpaper), and items that have yet to be imagined.
Like GE co-founder Thomas Edison, who improved Humphry Davy's lightbulb, Duggal is taking OLEDs, which have existed for decades, and focusing on how to mass-produce them. OLEDs glow when electricity flows through naturally occurring organic polymers. GE is betting on a process that "prints" the polymers onto plastic film and sandwiches them with a top layer of film. The long sheets can be made at high speed, producing rolls of OLEDs.
First, Duggal had to develop a genius for getting funded. The idea of manufacturing lighting with a method akin to newspaper printing was a tough sell. In the late '90s, he managed to buttonhole U.S. Energy Dept. officials visiting GE to look in on other projects. The $1 million grant that resulted helped keep the project going. Then in 2001, Jeff Immelt, still new in the role of CEO, challenged GE engineers and scientists to strive for breakthrough ideas. Today, OLED and LED research get about half of GE's R&D budget for lighting.
The lighting sales of market leaders Siemens (SI), Philips Electronics (PHG), and GE now add up to $17 billion a year. Research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates the current market for OLED lighting, which is even and diffuse compared with single-point sources like bulbs, at $77 million a year. That could rise rapidly if architects and developers adopt the technology. All GE's major rivals are working on OLEDs, but Duggal's manufacturing process and his flexible product may prove to be a huge advantage for GE, says Frost & Sullivan analyst Abhigyan Sengupta.
As a student, Duggal, 44, was torn between philosophy, religion, and the physical sciences. His drive to solve tangible problems won out: "My personal dream was to change the world...technology-wise." Before that happens, GE, Duggal—and the outside designers who will be given sheets of the stuff—must figure out how to turn this new material into products on store shelves.
Dropped his philosophy studies to solve tangible problems
An Energy Dept. grant floated him until GE got on board
Designs that make his lighting technology marketable