Nanotechnology Produces Shape-Shifting Fluorescent Light

The flickering fluorescent light—long the bane of office workers and dorm residents everywhere, and a scourge on the environment for their difficult recycling characteristics—is about to get a green makeover thanks to nanotechnology research being conducted at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Researchers at the school’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials say they have developed a new hyper-efficient LED alternative that not only eliminates the flicker and buzz of conventional tubes but also gives off a more pleasant glow. More importantly, the new plastic bulbs are shatterproof and are least twice as efficient as compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

Wake Forest Light

Gra student Greg Smith (left) and Prof. David Carroll view the FIPEL light. Image via Wake Forest University.

The bulbs use something called “field-induced polymer electroluminescent” technology, or FIPEL, which uses about as much power as an LED light. The key is a nano-polymer matrix coated on the insides of the bulbs that, when subjected to a charge, emits a white glow with spectral characteristics similar to those of natural sunlight.

Once commercialized, these FIPEL lights could be popular with commercial property owners, especially those with large complexes that need low-cost lighting options in a variety of environments. The lights can be tinted to any desired color and, because they use plastic instead of glass, can be molded into as surprising variety of shapes, from flat 2×4-foot sheets in office drop ceilings to standard round bulbs for household light sockets.

“People often complain that fluorescent lights bother their eyes, and the hum from the fluorescent tubes irritates anyone sitting at a desk underneath them,” David Carroll, the physics professor in charge of research for FIPEL, said on the Wake Forest website. “The new lights we have created can cure both of those problems and more.”

Carroll’s team has worked on the bulbs for about a decade, focusing mainly on a large-scale FIPEL unit that can replace office fluorescent lighting. Other potential uses, Carroll said, would be large display lighting for store marquees and other lighted signage.

Wake Forest also said it is negotiating with a manufacturer the produce a commercial-grade bulb for consumers in the next year. Once available, the bulbs are expected to have a long operating life; Carroll said one of his early prototypes still continues to shine 10 years later.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.