Bright Ideas in the Automotive Industry

Duncan Clark explains why OLEDs are making an impact in the automotive industry

Since their initial discovery in the 1950s, use of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) in digital displays has become commonplace. Yet they have struggled to live up to the hype. Here, we shed some light on the future of OLEDs and how they are making an impact in the automotive industry.

In 1987, chemists at the Eastman Kodak Company, known today simply as Kodak, developed the first practical OLED device. It was developed using a two-layer structure sandwiched between an indium tin oxide anode and an alloyed magnesium/silver cathode with light emission occurring in the middle of the organic layer. Little did we know that OLEDS would still be such a hot topic today, over 33 years later.

Unlike traditional LEDs, the emissive electroluminescent layer of OLEDs is a film of organic compounds that emit light in response to an electric current. However, as with their traditional counterparts, the semiconductor material of OLEDs can be doped, fine tuning them for a variety of applications.

What’s more, because the organic layers of an OLED are thinner and lighter than the crystalline layer of LEDs, the conductive and emissive layers of OLEDs can be multi-layered. This is extremely beneficial in the automotive industry where lightweight materials are highly sought after.

For example, German car manufacturer Audi now offers high-end OLED-based optional extras on its latest vehicles. The new Q5 luxury SUV offers customers looking for the technological edge the chance to take advantage of special OLED rear lights called signatures.

“The rear lights turn into a kind of display on the outer shell, which will provide us with ample opportunities and prospects in terms of design, personalisation, communication and safety,” explains Thomas Werner, OLED technology project manager at Audi.

The OLED lights aren’t purely a cosmetic feature, they also enhance safety. They are connected to sensors at the rear of the vehicle that will detect oncoming vehicles and shine at full brightness if they get too close.

It is evident that OLEDs offer key benefits compared with traditional LEDs, something manufacturers are increasingly trying to take advantage of. Firstly, because they produce their own light rather than relying on a backlight, they have much larger fields of view than their traditional counterparts. Furthermore, unlike LEDs, they can create a state of true black when not emitting light. This creates higher contrast displays and increased efficiency since no power is used unnecessarily.

What’s Next For OLEDs?

Researchers are not stopping there though. Research is ongoing, continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible with OLED technology. For example, in a recent paper, Dr Franky So, chief technology officer at NextGen Nano, explored new blue OLEDs with a power efficiency close to existing blue phosphorescent OLEDs, particularly at high brightness. This research could facilitate the creation of devices with superior levels of luminosity, which use half the energy of current systems.

OLED technology has come a long way in 33 years, from a novel idea to being commonplace. As researchers such as Nextgen Nano and manufacturers such as Audi continue to push the boundaries, who knows what the next 33 years might bring?

Duncan Clark is operations director of NextGen Nano