Plextronics – Is The Next Big Thing Flat?

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What’s the next big thing in light?  Well, it just may be an array of products that will revolutionize the way we look at our phones and even how we watch television. The innovative new products will use an energy efficient technology that’s a perfect example of what can go right when academia, industry, and the government collaborate.

Richard McCullough, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, toiled away for more than a decade, aiming for the stars, and hoping to revolutionize the way traditional lighting is used. In the 1990s, after a decade of federally-funded research, he developed a new conductive polymer technology that allows organic light emitting diodes (OLEDS) to shine brighter and appear crisper, all while being more energy and cost efficient than their predecessors, the LEDs and LCDs, that we’re used to seeing on the market.  In fact, this new technology wasn’t a bulb at all; in fact it was most similar to an ink!

After applying for a patent for this new conductive “ink,” McCullough and entrepreneur Andrew W. Hannah started a company in Pittsburgh in 2002 in order to develop commercial applications for the new technology, the company is known today, as Plextronics. 

Plextronics currently has 72 employees, including 23 men and women with PhDs.  The company now manufactures and supplies customized inks throughout the world to enhance OLED performance for next generation displays and lighting applications, lithium ion batteries, polymer metal capacitors, and emerging organic electronic devices.  This year, Plextronics received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Award from the Department of Energy to continue designing and developing conductive polymers and printable formulations that improve the manufacturing and functioning of electronic devices.  

Consumers are already seeing smartphones with better, more energy efficient displays, and, as the technology improves, it will find its way into devices with increasingly larger screens, changing the way we approach devices, like iPad’s. They are expected to enhance the quality and performance of TVs, and even light bulbs will be affected by the new technology, although, if Plextronics has their way, we wouldn’t buy “bulbs” to light our homes and streets, at all.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.