Innovative OLEDs Moving from Television Screens to Cannabis Grow Ops

by | Jul 30, 2018

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

The arguments for switching to LED (light emitting diodes) are by now well established. Still a significant upfront investment, LEDs provide a complex spectrum of light, using substantially much less energy and emitting much less heat than conventional HPS lighting used in indoor cannabis farms.

The marijuana sector has certainly made a move towards an LED focused approach to lighting over the last decade. But is that about to change with OLEDs? Futurists have started to discuss the new possibilities posed by OLEDs, or Organic Light Emitting Diodes, in indoor agriculture, and it seems an increasingly likely move.

Despite OLEDs infiltration into our LG and Apple screens, cannabis farmers remain in the dark about the technology. OLEDs have been around for nearly 30 years, but only recently has it grabbed headlines. This is mostly thanks to their adoption by the high-end television sector. OLEDs are the reason why new 80-inch television screens are under a quarter inch thick, and flexible. So why does an OLED television technology make sense in the cannabis world?

Improving on LEDs, the Unique Characteristics of OLEDs

An OLED is a stable structure made up of extremely thin layers of organic material, now mostly designed out of a compound called graphene. The screen is exceptionally flexible, can be ink-jet printed and just like LEDs it produces light when an electric current passes through its structure.

Newer iterations of OLED technology now use graphene as the organic material, which is cheaper and easier to produce than previous designs. Yet, graphene is still challenging and expensive to mass produce. Screens using OLEDs, which arguably produce the best image in the industry, are almost always the most costly option for consumers and producers alike.

If OLED technology is still in its infancy, why are some cannabis industry analysis theorizing about OLEDs replacing LEDs? OLED technology has in many ways taken all the best components of LEDs, and improved upon them. For example, OLEDs require much less space to install yet produce the same intense light as an LED.

An OLED lighting system would require under an inch of space, thereby allowing cannabis cultivators to pack more into small grow rooms. They also produce little to no heat, which could eliminate the need for the bulky and costly HVAC systems used throughout the sector today. The energy savings, even when compared to an LED, are also substantial.

But the cost savings and reduced space requirements of OLEDs aren’t the game changer. The fascinating characteristic of OLEDs is the way they can be manipulated into innovative designs; printed on a flexible substrate and manipulated to suit the growing environment. They are thin enough to be translucent, theoretically making it easy also to take advantage of natural lighting.

The Future of OLED Lighting in Cannabis

It’s true that OLEDs have a long way to go before they completely replace LED grow lights in cannabis and for other indoor crops. But that isn’t to say the technology isn’t already making leaps and bounds towards a future in agriculture. Students at the Brunel University London have already started incorporating OLED technology into vertical farming designs.

Considering many indoor cannabis operations take advantage of vertical farming to conserve space, it will be interesting to see how OLEDs roll out in other vertically farmed crops.

Bendable OLED panels with efficacies >60 lm/W are commercially available and exemplify the technology’s flexible design possibilities. (Photo courtesy of OLEDWorks)

Many expect OLEDs to drop in price, as manufacturing techniques improve, mimicking the course of LED lighting. Already, research centers and tech companies are working on cheaper, easier ways to manufacture graphene, which is still one of the main reasons why OLEDs are so challenging to produce.

In recent months a team at Kansas State University may have accidentally stumbled on a cheap graphene production method using a spark plug of all things. Titan Hemp has also developed an all natural hemp-based plant fiber, which they propose is superior to graphene. Currently, they’ve marketed it for superconductor batteries, but there may be future applications in OLED technology. The irony is not lost that a future of a hemp-based OLED for growing cannabis is within sight.

While OLED lighting technology is still likely a few years away in cannabis, even for early adaptors, its potential to change the industry is huge. Once again, a new method of low heat, energy efficient lighting could dramatically change how we farm cannabis. The cannabis industry is experiencing fast paced innovation in facility design and crop science, unlike anything ever seen before. Its likely OLEDs could experience a much faster adoption rate.