A new lightbulb produced on a printing press

Reported from TAGA 2012, Jacksonville, Florida

Bill Ray has been talking about, and demonstrating printed electronics for a long, long time. I am one of the legions of people who have been impressed by his clever, scientific presentations that fall somewhere between circus side show and academic lecture.

Dr. Bill Ray holds the Impossible Bulb and declares, “This represents 50 million dollars!”
The bulb, which uses inorganic light-emitting diodes distributed along flexible elements in the shape of a conventional incandescent bulb.

Bill is a former TAGA president, a lifelong member of the graphic arts community, and an inventor. For the past 15 years he has been concentrating his efforts on the merger of conventional printing processes and the manufacture of electronic and electrical products.

I have a sheet of TIO (Tin-Indium-Oxide) foil in my office that features a screen-printed image of a Motorola cell phone (which dates the product to before the current line of smart phones). This printing lights-up when I flip a switch on a battery box connected by a flat cable to the TIO foil.

Bill Ray gave me this printed marvel a few years ago. I have showed it to my students for years, and they are always impressed. They are impressed because they know about printing processes and substrates. They are impressed because, until recently, they had never seen “paper” emit light (My sheet of TIO foil is a substitute for the “paper” in that sentence).

Dr. Ray has made many presentations to students, and he always ends his talks by taking a prototype of some product out of his briefcase, attaching a battery to it, and making people gasp in excitement when that product lights up.

A group of TAGA students listen to Dr. Ray as he explains his new light-emitting device.

And he has promised us for years (decades?) that soon – really soon – he would be able to show us a consumer or industrial product that would commercialize his scientific work combined with his printing experience combined with his novel ideas.

Today Bill Ray showed us that product.

Bill Ray makes a dramatic point in his discussion with TAGA students. He holds in his left hand the Impossible Bulb, powered-off. The yellow strips are screen-printed with thousands of tiny LED elements that emit light when energized.

Called the Impossible Bulb, it is an inorganic LED light bulb that is approximately the size of an incandescent light bulb. The model he showed today emits about the same amount of light as a 20W incandescent lamp while consuming about half that much power.

Most of the bulb is printed by screen printing, including the light-emitting diodes that rim the edges of the bulb. The only part that is “manufactured” is the power supply in the center of the device, whose function is to convert 110V (or 220V) alternating current to 5-volt direct-current to run the light-emitting parts of the bulb. Parts of that power supply are printed on a three-dimensional printer.

Bill told us that the Impossible Bulb got its name from a comment made by an engineer in Southern California who boasted that Bill’s idea for the light-emitting device was impossible.

The bulb is not yet on the market, but it has a name, it has a package, and is being tested by national laboratories. Dr. Ray’s company is manufacturing the bulb, and plans to bring it to a retail store near you later this year.

I admit to having been a bit skeptical, though always impressed, by Bill’s many presentations on light-emitting printing and printed products. I was thrilled this morning to see Bill plug his Impossible Bulb into an electrical outlet, and turn it on.

I congratulate him and his company, Nth Degree, for their success in making this new light bulb (that really isn’t a bulb) and bringing it to market. The implications for the printing industry are immense, and the benefit to humanity is tremendous. The bulb has no toxic gases, metals or parts; it consumes very little enrgy, and the color of its light is pleasing to the eye.

I’m excited because this is just the first day of TAGA, and we have already seen this impressive new product.



About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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4 Responses to A new lightbulb produced on a printing press

  1. Amy Kardel says:

    That is so interesting and wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Stephen Vance says:

    I LOVE genius-guys like this! This is brilliant. Thanks so much for this!

  3. Logan Spittler says:

    I want to make these someday! Printable electronics here I come

  4. Arlen Van Os says:

    I had the privilege of meeting Bill several years ago. I was happy when he said the screen printing industry has not yet seen its best days. Bill was talking about super high-tech uses for screen printing such as screen printed electronics on paper. I think Bill might be be right about the future of screen printing. I have screen printed such E.L. lamps before and they are getting brighter and cheaper all the time. Bill has the combination of can-do attitude, imagination and intelligence that will power the USA through the next wave of technological breakthroughs.

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