Electroluminescence (EL) is an optical and electrical phenomenon that results in the generation of visible light when electric current is passed through a material. The material is specially prepared and treated with various compounds to affect the resulting color of emitted light. EL has been in use for decades and was commercially used by Chrysler in 1960 as the lighting in automotive dashboards. EL is widely used today as the backlight in many liquid crystal displays including wristwatches, calculators and thermostats.
For our lighting purposes, the type of EL lighting we discuss comes in the form of string or wire. EL wire has the look of neon in a flexible wire about 2-3 millimeters in diameter. The entire length of the EL wire emits colored lighted and because it is flexible, can be shaped to form words and pictures as well as to highlight edges of signs, costumes or just about anything. EL lighting is lightweight and runs on AC power although it can also be powered by batteries with the use of an inverter.
It has many possible uses. It can be used in home theaters to create an accent or even the look of neon or to create walkway lights to illuminate a path. EL wire can be twisted into shapes and words and be connected to a sequencer to create animations. EL wire comes in lengths from a foot to several hundred feet. It is available with a tab to facilitate sewing onto costumes and rigid tracks are available to facilitate installation along a wall or ceiling. EL wire can also be used under water, although it is recommended for only short durations and all electrical connections, power supplies and inverters must remain dry.
EL Wire is available in about 10 different colors, including white, a few varieties can color change, although only within a narrow range. The wire is available in typically four diameters 1.2mm, 2.3mm, 3.2mm and 5mm. Prices range around $1 to $2 per foot. When using battery power an inverter is required to power the wire and the size of the inverter must be matched to the length of wire being powered. When connecting to AC a current limiting control circuit is required to avoid damage to the wire. Operating voltage ranges from 48-130VAC. Frequency operating range is from 50 to 5000 Hz. Higher voltages or frequencies result in brighter light output but reduced lifespan.Wires can be spliced together to increase the overall length and multiple colors can be used together. The wire can be ordered in bulk and then soldered to the power supply or pre-made units can be purchased for immediate use with no set up work required. EL wire must be properly terminated in order for a section to illuminate properly.
Over time, the brightness of EL wire dims. Its lifespan has been reported to last years however the primary manufacturer only claims that it lasts for "thousands of hours" and in one case refers to the lifespan in terms of months. Indeed, if left on for 12 hours a day for one year, total use time would exceed 4,000 hours. Its fading and lifespan would be the main drawback to permanent installations of EL wire.