It's the proverbial bright idea: electrically charged ink that comes in as many colors as neon and uses one-hundredth the power.
Brent St. John's young daughter is the talk of her suburban St. Louis school because her bike helmet emits a firefly-like, green-colored glow. Magic? Hardly. The helmet is a prototype that's made of a special plastic and uses a special ink. St. John's company, Lumimove Inc., has created a patented printing process that the CEO hopes will revolutionize not just helmets but all sorts of visual media. The process makes it possible to print charged inks on conductive plastics that employ a complete color palette and use one-hundredth the power of neon signs.
So-called excitable inks -- inks that conduct electricity -- have been around for years. What's new is that Lumimove has figured out how to print the ink on flexible plastic panels that hook up to a tiny, two-inch-long conductor, which in turn connects to a controller that is the brains of the system. The controller plugs in to a standard electrical socket or may even be powered by common nine-volt batteries.
Signs made using the process are sophisticated enough to flash letters, words, or images in a desired sequence to create the eye-catching effects associated with neon, but they require only 160 volts of electricity compared with neon's thousands. And unlike the letters in many neon signs, those in Lumimove's creations are unlikely to go on the blink and reduce, say, FIRE to IRE and incite the latter in the customer. If one part of a sign begins to fade or flicker, the controller notes the discrepancy and redirects power to the trouble spot.
So far Lumimove's two production lines have turned out flashy products for bars and restaurants, including tables and hanging signs advertising beer. The company is now moving into the vending-machine market. "The light boxes in vending machines are a power hog. There's a heat issue and a breakage issue," St. John says. "Our panel can replace that completely."
St. John's most dramatic idea for the technology is to create panels (to be hung in buildings) or patches (for people and products) that will emit a flashing light if they come in contact with a dangerous chemical or bacteria. One application of the concept: Put a patch on a package of beef or chicken. If the meat is harboring E. coli or Salmonella, it will trigger a visual alarm. St. John began working on the idea last year, but since the September 11 terrorist attacks, he has been focusing on how to integrate it into a drug-delivery system like the nicotine patch. In the event of a bioterrorist attack, such a patch would not only flash but also trigger the release of an antidote. St. John has pitched the idea to Missouri senator Jean Carnahan and forwarded materials to the White House's new Office of Homeland Defense. If those applications don't come to pass, there's still a fine market for signs that flash "Eat at Joe's."
MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City. @mikehofman