How OLEDs Work

Samsung's prototype 40-inch OLED TV. See more HDTV pictures.
Photo Courtesy: Samsung Electronics

Imagine having a high-definition TV that is 80 inches wide and less than a quarter-inch thick, consumes less power than most TVs on the market today and can be rolled up when you're not using it. What if you could have a "heads up" display in your car? How about a display monitor built into your clothing? These devices may be possible in the near future with the help of a technology called organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

OLEDs are solid-state devices composed of thin films of organic molecules that create light with the application of electricity. OLEDs can provide brighter, crisper displays on electronic devices and use less power than conventional light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or liquid crystal displays (LCDs) used today.


­In this article, you will learn how­ OLED technology works, what types of OLEDs are possible, how OLEDs compare to other lighting techn­ologies and what problems OLEDs need to overcome.

OLED Components

OLED components include organic layers that are made of organic molecules or polymers. Learn about some of the different OLED components.

Like an LED, an OLED is a solid-state semiconductor device that is 100 to 500 nanometers thick or about 200 times smaller than a human hair. OLEDs can have either two layers or three layers of organic material; in the latter design, the third layer helps transport electrons from the cathode to the emissive layer. In this article, we'll be focusing on the two-layer design.

An OLED consists of the following parts:


Substrate (clear plastic, glass, foil) - The substrate supports the OLED.

Anode (transparent) - The anode removes electrons (adds electron "holes") when a current flows through the device.

Organic layers - These layers are made of organic molecules or polymers.

Conducting layer - This layer is made of organic plastic molecules that transport "holes" from the anode. One conducting polymer used in OLEDs is polyaniline.

Emissive layer - This layer is made of organic plastic molecules (different ones from the conducting layer) that transport electrons from the cathode; this is where light is made. One polymer used in the emissive layer is polyfluorene.

Cathode (may or may not be transparent depending on the type of OLED) - The cathode injects electrons when a current flows through the device.

The biggest part of manufacturing OLEDs is applying the organic layers to the substrate. This can be done in three ways:

  • Vacuum deposition or vacuum thermal evaporation (VTE) - In a vacuum chamber, the organic molecules are gently heated (evaporated) and allowed to condense as thin films onto cooled substrates. This process is expensive and inefficient.
  • Organic vapor phase deposition (OVPD) - In a low-pressure, hot-walled reactor chamber, a carrier gas transports evaporated organic molecules onto cooled substrates, where they condense into thin films. Using a carrier gas increases the efficiency and reduces the cost of making OLEDs.
  • Inkjet printing - With inkjet technology, OLEDs are sprayed onto substrates just like inks are sprayed onto paper during printing. Inkjet technology greatly reduces the cost of OLED manufacturing and allows OLEDs to be printed onto very large films for large displays like 80-inch TV screens or electronic billboards.

How do OLEDs Emit Light?

OLED light is created through a process called electrophosphorescence. Learn about electrophosphorescence and find out how OLED light is created.

OLEDs emit light in a similar manner to LEDs, through a process called electrophosphorescence.

The process is as follows:


  1. The battery or power supply of the device containing the OLED applies a voltage across the OLED.
  2. An electrical current flows from the cathode to the anode through the organic layers (an electrical current is a flow of electrons). The cathode gives electrons to the emissive layer of organic molecules. The anode removes electrons from the conductive layer of organic molecules. (This is the equivalent to giving electron holes to the conductive layer.)
  3. At the boundary between the emissive and the conductive layers, electrons find electron holes. When an electron finds an electron hole, the electron fills the hole (it falls into an energy level of the atom that's missing an electron). When this happens, the electron gives up energy in the form of a photon of light (see How Light Works).
  4. The OLED emits light.
  5. The color of the light depends on the type of organic molecule in the emissive layer. Manufacturers place several types of organic films on the same OLED to make color displays.
  6. The intensity or brightness of the light depends on the amount of electrical current applied: the more current, the brighter the light.

Types of OLEDs: Passive and Active Matrix

OLED types include passive-matrix OLEDs, active-matrix OLEDs and transparent OLEDs.

There are several types of OLEDs:

  • Passive-matrix OLED
  • Active-matrix OLED
  • Transparent OLED
  • Top-emitting OLED
  • Foldable OLED
  • White OLED

Each type has different uses. In the following sections, we'll discuss each type of OLED. Let's start with passive-matrix and active-matrix OLEDs.


Passive-matrix OLED (PMOLED)

PMOLEDs have strips of cathode, organic layers and strips of anode. The anode strips are arranged perpendicular to the cathode strips. The intersections of the cathode and anode make up the pixels where light is emitted. External circuitry applies current to selected strips of anode and cathode, determining which pixels get turned on and which pixels remain off. Again, the brightness of each pixel is proportional to the amount of applied current.

PMOLEDs are easy to make, but they consume more power than other types of OLED, mainly due to the power needed for the external circuitry. PMOLEDs are most efficient for text and icons and are best suited for small screens (2- to 3-inch diagonal) such as those you find in cell phones, PDAs and MP3 players. Even with the external circuitry, passive-matrix OLEDs consume less battery power than the LCDs that currently power these devices.


Active-matrix OLED (AMOLED)

AMOLEDs have full layers of cathode, organic molecules and anode, but the anode layer overlays a thin film transistor (TFT) array that forms a matrix. The TFT array itself is the circuitry that determines which pixels get turned on to form an image.

AMOLEDs consume less power than PMOLEDs because the TFT array requires less power than external circuitry, so they are efficient for large displays. AMOLEDs also have faster refresh rates suitable for video. The best uses for AMOLEDs are computer monitors, large-screen TVs and electronic signs or billboards.

Types of OLEDs: Transparent, Top-emitting, Foldable and White


Transparent OLED

Transparent OLEDs have only transparent components (substrate, cathode and anode) and, when turned off, are up to 85 percent as transparent as their substrate. When a transparent OLED display is turned on, it allows light to pass in both directions. A transparent OLED display can be either active- or passive-matrix. This technology can be used for heads-up displays.

Top-emitting OLED

Top-emitting OLEDs have a substrate that is either opaque or reflective. They are best suited to active-matrix design. Manufacturers may use top-emitting OLED displays in smart cards.



Foldable OLED

Foldable OLEDs have substrates made of very flexible metallic foils or plastics. Foldable OLEDs are very lightweight and durable. Their use in devices such as cell phones and PDAs can reduce breakage, a major cause for return or repair. Potentially, foldable OLED displays can be attached to fabrics to create "smart" clothing, such as outdoor survival clothing with an integrated computer chip, cell phone, GPS receiver and OLED display sewn into it.

White OLED

White OLEDs emit white light that is brighter, more uniform and more energy efficient than that emitted by fluorescent lights. White OLEDs also have the true-color qualities of incandescent lighting. Because OLEDs can be made in large sheets, they can replace fluorescent lights that are currently used in homes and buildings. Their use could potentially reduce energy costs for lighting.

In the next section, we'll discuss the pros and cons of OLED technology and how it compares to regular LED and LCD technology.

OLED Advantages and Disadvantages

The LCD is currently the display of choice in small devices and is also popular in large-screen TVs. Regular LEDs often form the digits on digital clocks and other electronic devices. OLEDs offer many advantages over both LCDs and LEDs:

  • The plastic, organic layers of an OLED are thinner, lighter and more flexible than the crystalline layers in an LED or LCD.
  • Because the light-emitting layers of an OLED are lighter, the substrate of an OLED can be flexible instead of rigid. OLED substrates can be plastic rather than the glass used for LEDs and LCDs.
  • OLEDs are brighter than LEDs. Because the organic layers of an OLED are much thinner than the corresponding inorganic crystal layers of an LED, the conductive and emissive layers of an OLED can be multi-layered. Also, LEDs and LCDs require glass for support, and glass absorbs some light. OLEDs do not require glass.
  • OLEDs do not require backlighting like LCDs (see How LCDs Work). LCDs work by selectively blocking areas of the backlight to make the images that you see, while OLEDs generate light themselves. Because OLEDs do not require backlighting, they consume much less power than LCDs (most of the LCD power goes to the backlighting). This is especially important for battery-operated devices such as cell phones.
  • OLEDs are easier to produce and can be made to larger sizes. Because OLEDs are essentially plastics, they can be made into large, thin sheets. It is much more difficult to grow and lay down so many liquid crystals.
  • OLEDs have large fields of view, about 170 degrees. Because LCDs work by blocking light, they have an inherent viewing obstacle from certain angles. OLEDs produce their own light, so they have a much wider viewing range.

Problems with OLED

OLED seems to be the perfect technology for all types of displays, but it also has some problems:


  • Lifetime - While red and green OLED films have longer lifetimes (46,000 to 230,000 hours), blue organics currently have much shorter lifetimes (up to around 14,000 hours[source:]).
  • Manufacturing - Manufacturing processes are expensive right now.
  • Water - Water can easily damage OLEDs.

In the next section, we'll talk about some current and future uses of OLEDs.

Current and Future OLED Applications

OLED display for Sony Clie
Photo courtesy Sony Corporation

Currently, OLEDs are used in small-screen devices such as cell phones, PDAs and digital cameras. In September 2004, Sony Corporation announced that it was beginning mass production of OLED screens for its CLIE PEG-VZ90 model of personal-entertainment handhelds.

Kodak was the first to release a digital camera with an OLED display in March 2003, the EasyShare LS633 [source:Kodak press release].


Kodak LS633 EasyShare with OLED display
Photo Courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper

Several companies have already built prototype computer monitors and large-screen TVs that use OLED technology. In May 2005, Samsung Electronics announced that it had developed a prototype 40-inch, OLED-based, ultra-slim TV, the first of its size [source: Kanellos]. And in October 2007, Sony announced that it would be the first to market with an OLED television. The XEL-1 will be available in December 2007 for customers in Japan. It lists for 200,000 Yen -- or about $1,700 U.S. [source: Sony].

The Sony 11-inch XEL-1 OLED TV.
Photo Courtesy Sony

Research and development in the field of OLEDs is proceeding rapidly and may lead to future applications in heads-up displays, automotive dashboards, billboard-type displays, home and office lighting and flexible displays. Because OLEDs refresh faster than LCDs -- almost 1,000 times faster -- a device with an OLED display could change information almost in real time. Video images could be much more realistic and constantly updated. The newspaper of the future might be an OLED display that refreshes with breaking news (think "Minority Report") -- and like a regular newspaper, you could fold it up when you're done reading it and stick it in your backpack or briefcase.

For more information on OLEDs and related technologies, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Antoniadis, Homer, Ph.D. "Overview of OLED Display Technology." Osram Optical Semiconductors.
  • "Brilliant Plastics." Siemen's Webzine.
  • "DuPont shows new AMOLED materials and OLED displays" 3/6/2007. (10/9/2007).
  • Howard, Webster E. "Better Displays with Organic Films." Scientific American.
  • Kanellos, Michael. "New Samsung panel pictures inch-thick TV." CNET 5/18/2005. (10/8/2007).
  • Kodak: OLED Tutorial.
  • " Kodak Unveils World's First Digital Camera with OLED Display" Eastman Kodak. 3/2/2003. (10/8/2007).
  • Michael J. Felton (2001) "Thinner lighter better brighter, Today's Chemist at Work."; 10 (11): 30-34
  • "OLED." AUO.
  • Universal Display Corporation: Technology.
  • Wave Report: OLED Tutorial.
  • Williams, Martyn. "PC World - Sony Readies OLED TV".4/12/2007 (10/8/2007).,130653-pg,1/article.html