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Shedding new light

For years, women's handbags have been something of a black hole, dark, disorganized and a formidable challenge to those looking for keys or lipstick.

Technology may soon change that.

"The answer is light," says Axel Bree, 35, who with his brother Philipp, 31, is co-president of Bree handbags in Germany.

Or more specifically, the answer is electroluminescence, a technology that generates a cool, gentle light _ but not heat _ when the chemical coating on plastic is electronically stimulated.

That's just one of several ways that EL differs from traditional light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs burn out and are inefficient: Much of the energy they use is thrown off as heat, not light. EL lighting, on the other hand, uses electricity to light up specially treated plastic. This chemically treated plastic generates so little heat that it remains cool to the touch, doesn't burn out and uses less energy. EL has been around for decades, but for years researchers puzzled over applications for it because of its low light intensity and the fact that originally it only worked on flat, rigid spaces.

A recent innovation in plastics is likely to give the technology a big boost. Scientists and engineers at Bayer AG say they are among the first to market a plastic film that not only lights up, but also can be molded into three-dimensional shapes. Bayer teamed up with Swiss lighting company Lumitec, which licensed the EL technology to Germany's Bree in an exclusive deal. Last fall, Bree unveiled a big, portfolio-sized leather purse with a clear, flexible 6-by-5-inch plastic sheet that glows inside the bag. The panel, powered by a nine-volt battery and controlled by a tiny switch tucked away inside the bag lining, is bright enough to light both sides of the purse's cavernous interior.

In April, Bree plans to sell its first two electroluminescent leather-and-nylon bags, for 250 euros ($315) and 400 euros, respectively. The bags aren't sold in the United States, but shoppers will find them at Bree stores in Europe, Asia and Canada. American buyers can order the bags through Taschen Inc. of Toronto, the company says.

The new use for EL opens up an array of possibilities for electroluminescence in the $40-billion global lighting market. Scientists and engineers predict, for example, that in a matter of years, clothes that glow could be all the rage. Auto makers are pondering ways to use its soft, glowing light for car interiors, and lighting designers see a growing niche for EL in interior design.

Bayer's foray into lighting underscores a broader trend for chemical companies that seek to shed mature assets and develop new, more profitable applications for their products. As the chemical makers try to reinvent themselves, companies such as Bayer, Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., and DuPont Co., Wilmington, Del., are joining forces with smaller lighting businesses to develop technology that requires only a fraction of the energy used by an incandescent or even fluorescent bulb.

"Light bulbs owned the last century," says Robert Kumpf, vice president of business development for Bayer Polymers, Americas. "Modern lighting technology will own the next."

One such "modern" form of lighting, using light emitting diodes, or LEDs, is gaining prominence in traffic lights, electronics control panels and even automobile headlights. Strategies Unlimited, a market-growth research firm in Mountain View, Calif., predicts the $2.7-billion LED market will more than double to $5.5-billion by 2008.

EL is another promising alternative to the incandescent bulb, though its potential is still unclear and analysts haven't yet predicted its market potential.

The $350,000 2002 Mercedes Maybach is the first car to boast an electroluminescent headliner _ the ceiling of a car's interior _ stylishly bathing the inside of a vehicle in light. The new EL light gives auto designers more flexibility, since bulbs tend to take up considerable space, eat up more power and give off heat.

EL "creates a mood," says Ron Steen, director of lighting, research and design at Schefenacker Vision Systems U.S.A. Inc. The unit of Schefenacker AG, a German lighting firm, sells the product developed with DuPont.

Bayer scientists and engineers were brainstorming about EL applications in cars when they hit on the idea of women's handbags about two years ago. Eckard Foltin, head of the Creative Centers at Bayer Polymers, a unit of Bayer, then conducted an unscientific poll of women in the company's public-affairs office. "The reaction was: "That could be a wonderful thing,' " Foltin says.

After teaming up with Lumitec, Bayer officials, who recognized the cachet of Bree handbags, called the Bree brothers. It turned out that they had long been trying to shed light on dark handbag interiors. The Brees had tried accessorizing their handbags with miniature flashlights and had consulted German and Italian lightmakers without success.

When Bree rolled out the prototype in September, it won rave reviews at a trade show in Offenbach, Germany. Initially, the technology is expected to be available only in the company's more expensive handbags.

Axel Bree predicts his company will set the standard for the entire industry, and that eventually light will shine on the inside of even the most inexpensive purses.

"In less than five years," Bree says, "interior light will be just as common in handbags as mobile phones are today."