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Scientists create flicker-free, shatterproof alternative to fluorescent lights


December 3, 2012

David Carroll (right) and graduate student Greg Smith, with a couple of the FIPEL lights

David Carroll (right) and graduate student Greg Smith, with a couple of the FIPEL lights

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Fluorescent lights are one of those things that you see everywhere, but that nobody likes. They flicker, they hum, they produce a rather unattractive light, plus they’re fragile and contain toxic substances. They may also be on their way out – scientists from North Carolina’s Wake Forest University have created a new form of lighting that they say could be used in the same large-scale applications as fluorescent bulbs, but that lacks their shortcomings.

Developed by a team led by physicist Prof. David Carroll, the experimental new lights utilize FIPEL (field-induced polymer electroluminescent) technology. Each one is made of three layers of a moldable polymer, blended with a small amount of multi-walled carbon nanotubes – when stimulated via an electrical current, these nanotubes glow, emitting a white light that is said to be similar in appearance to sunlight.

The researchers add that the color of the light is preferable to that of “white” LEDs, which they say actually has a cold blue-ish tinge to it.

Although FIPEL lights can take the traditional fluorescent-like tube form, they can also be made in just about any other shape – or color. This means, for instance, that they could be created in sheet-like panels, or contained in round bulbs that could be screwed into a traditional household fixture.

When it comes to energy efficiency, they’re said to be at least twice as efficient as compact fluorescent bulbs, and about the same as LEDs. They also apparently last quite a long time, with one in Carroll’s lab having worked for about ten years. Additionally, they don’t contain any fragile glass, and won’t release any harmful gases or other substances if broken.

The university is currently working with a commercial partner, and hopes to have FIPEL lights on the market sometime next year.

A paper on the research was just published in the journal Organic Electronics.

Source: Wake Forest University via BBC

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

cool, but the one BIG thing this article doesn't mention is price.

Derek Howe

Ten years, you say? And it's just now coming to attention... I have a feeling this is going to be another of those technologies that stays in the lab.

Racqia Dvorak

10 years and we don't have these yet WHY?

John Harper

Contrary to popular belief as stated in the previous comments, new technology does not jump to full scale production in a matter of months. Concepts have to be proven, viability determined, feasability of full scale production determined, estimation of production costs, etc, etc, etc. Then looking for funding, and playing all the games associated with that. Even if they have done all of that already, it will still take a few years to setup a mass-production facility. - Asking for a price now is a bit premature.


"Each one is made of three layers of a moldable polymer, blended with a small amount of multi-walled carbon nanotubes."

"Additionally, they don’t contain any fragile glass, and won’t release any harmful gases or other substances if broken"

"SMALL AMOUNT"-- Nano is truely a large amount in quantity

Double Walled CNT's and MWCNT's have been found to be toxic to animals; it causes cancer in humans.

There are no regulations that are universal or agreed upon for CNT's and the toxicity of the water table and enviroment in the US or foriegn country.

Sounds like a Great find and use of a polymor system that uses CNT's, but do we know about the long term affects of CNT's givin it's time of discovery and where it is today?


Backlight for all those LCD screens!


I have always wondered why we havent developed light panels earlier. Floro-tube attached to ceilings have always been less than attractive. Also the ease of putting up area lighting is much easier with light panels that traditional lamps. The public applications are far more varied in lighting dark areas, walkways, etc all at low energy use.


@aNTI-Onyx: Yes, a SMALL AMOUNT! Look at the figures. Best performance seems to be around 0.05% CNTs embedded in a film around 200 nm thick. That's a really small amount of possibly-toxic (unproven, to date) nano material, trapped inside a polymer film. Short of ripping the film out of a FIPEL source, grinding it into pollen-sized dust, and inhaling it, I don't think there's a lot to worry over. Consider also that CNTs are commonly produced in many smoky flames. Humans have been burning hydrocarbons for millennia, and for most of that time, casually breathing the effluent.

David Bell

This might ge a good retrofit for T5 or T8 tubes. The hope would be less expensive that LED lights. The article doesn't mention the working temperature range, like can it handle -15F?

Bruce H. Anderson

A couple of details, LED's are about the same eff as CFL's

And the color of LED's depends on which parts it's made of. Personally I like bright and blue white as it makes details easier to see.


I wish the FDA would scrutinize new meds the way the scientific community must do to their new finds.

Norman Welch

Funny how researchers always use falsehoods to make competing tech sound bad. Saying LEDs produce harsh light is just rubbish, LEDs produce whatever light you want, they are available in ultra warm (2500K) right through to ultra cool (20000K) and pretty much everything in between. CRIs are available right up to 96 or even higher. It's just a matter of selecting the right LED for the task.

LEDs also have efficiacies of 100 to 150 L/W at the LED, the highest of all domestic light sources, and even at 150L/W you are still looking at CRIs of 80 or better. At CRIs over 90 you still get 100 L/W. Sure these are chip-efficiacy figures but for panel lights and similar, the LEDs are usually faced directly into the area to be lit - no optics etc to reduce the figures. LED drivers are generally ober 80% efficient nowadays, and good ones are over 90%, so total fitting efficiency is often close to or over 100L/W.

So, either these researchers are way behind the times or they are being willfully ignorant to support their research. Sadly, this is a common problem with many researchers.

Mr T

Polymer they say. Is it as recyclable as glass is?

Yashodhan Pise

@John Harper They've probably been testing and seeing if they can get any higher yields, as well as waiting for the price of CNTs to go down. Now is as good a time as any to take it to market. I for one can't wait!

Joel Detrow

New technology can jump from concept to full scale production in months, even just weeks.

That was done quite often during World War 2, especially with aircraft. Henry J. Kaiser took shipbuilding in a new direction with welding replacing the traditional riveting. That didn't take years to do.

Put enough people on a job, with today's technology, and new things should be production ready even faster. The longest part of the time should be building the equipment to do the mass production.

Aircraft companies during WW2 had hundreds of people all working simultaneously on a single design, doing it with pens, pencils and paper. To collaborate they had to physically go to one another's drafting tables and move paper around.

Now think of that same size crew all using networked computers and how much faster they could complete similar tasks.

But since computer systems like that have been used, the design and engineering teams have shrunk and the time to get complex things into production has increased a lot, in spite of the speed advantage of computers.

During WW2, the Hudson Motor Car Company was awarded the contract to redesign the Swiss Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun to make it ready for mass production, and to build it in large numbers. One woman was absolutely critical to the entire operation. She took care of all the blueprints, in addition to processing paychecks and a whole host of other secretarial duties.

With the paychecks, she found out that the young man whose only task was running blueprints back and forth from her office was paid more than she, she complained. "But you're the highest paid female employee at Hudson!" She replied that she'd take the runner's job (and paycheck) and he could have her job. She got a raise because without her, nobody would know where to find any of the blueprints and other documents for the gun project, or any of the other military production Hudson was doing.

Gregg Eshelman

Regarding FIPEL illumination devices. A solid state light bulb. No vaccums, no rare earth metals, maybe no toxins---wow! Next they will come out with a light that has a self contained power source that last for years at a time. I still remember the light brought out by a woman on the original series Star Trek. A perpetual light source that was over a thousand years old and they covered it with a towel when they wanted no light. Ancient technology and ancient computer system controlled every aspect of society for over a thousand years until of course Captain Kirk and company came along and corrupted and destroyed it and made the people free.


I tested a bunch of CFL's and LED's on the market last year with a watt meter (kill a watt). In bulbs advertised as 60 watt equivalent the LED's were about 10% more efficient than CFL. In bulbs advertised as 40 watt equivalent the efficiency difference was between 0% and 25% depending on the bulb and manufacturer.

At 15 cents per kwh the difference in a year of operating cost between them was between $1 to $4 not taking into account the difference in lifespan of the bulbs.

The difference in a year of operating cost between them and incandescent at 60 watts is over $50.

Compared to 100 watt incandescent bulbs the difference in cost for a year of operation is about $100.

The TL;DR is if you still have incandescent bulbs you are burning money and if you want to go cheap the $1 CFL's are cheapest at first but it takes about 5 years of operation for the $20 LED to come out ahead as the cheapest total cost.

Right now there is still no wrong decision between CFL vs LED. I recommend watching for sales and replacing lights based on which ones are on the most first. Anyone worried about the small amount of mercury in CFL should go with LED but definitely not stay with incandescent. LED's are durable, you can drop a lamp and the bulbs won't break and I think dimmable LED's allow you do dip down to 10% and 5% where dimmable CFL can only operate down to about 15% usually but this isn't something I tested.

My return on investment calculations for LED were based on online prices (around $20 - $30 each) but many LED bulbs can be purchased between $10 and $15 locally at home depot. In 2009 and 2010 some LED's were $50 or $60 each so there has been a huge downward trend in price over the last few years that may continue.

That was kind of off topic but hopefully the data is useful to someone lol.


@Mr T: There is no such thing as a white LED; LEDs produce a single wavelength of light. The so-called "white" LED lights actually emit blue light in a narrow band; part of this light is then absorbed and re-emitted as yellow light by an overlying layer of phosphor. The resulting spectrum is far from natural; see for a diagram. There is a narrow, high-intensity spike in the blue band, and a broader hump in the yellow. The spectrum of "warm" or "cool" white LEDs is substantially the same, differing only in relative size of the hump.

This is particularly worrying because there have been concerns about the health effects of intense blue light---it is implicated in macular degeneration and in melatonin excretion imbalances (see or google "blue light exposure"). This is what they mean in the article when they talk about the "harshness" of white LED light.

FIPEL on the other hand appears to emit a more natural, evenly spread spectrum, "similar to sunlight" as they say in the article.

So know your stuff before you accuse others of being willfully ignorant.


Diachi - LED bulbs can be had for much less than that:

I'm increasingly disappointed with CCFLs. They really don't seem to last very long - certainly no longer than the incandescents they typically replace: in my flat I have about 10 bulbs, all CCFL, and typically have to replace them about every 9 months. They are also useless in places when you don't need light very often, like in garages etc because they take so long to get up to usable brightness - that does vary, but of the 20 or so brands I've used, none have performed consistently well.

The LED bulbs I've tried (which isn't many) have generally been awful, with wildly overstated light output, poor diffusion, inconsistent color, all with excessive prices. LED torches/flashlights however, are generally awesome; I don't know why there's such a difference from domestic bulbs.

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