Bright Light LEDs: Ready or Not?


Getics 10w LED Light Bulb

Following the rest of the world, the United States government passed a law in 2007 prohibiting the sale of 100-watt light bulbs that fail to meet efficiency standards. These energy-saving measures are due to take effect in 2012. Since January 2011, California has thus banned the restocking of 100-watt incandescent bulbs, and by 2014, they will no longer be manufactured in the US, nor will any incandescent bulbs be imported.

It is deplorable that governments need to regulate something as simple as our choice of light bulbs; rather, citizens should have the freedom to do it voluntarily. Soon, Americans will have no choice but to replace the incandescent light bulbs in their homes and businesses. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) rightfully introduced a bill to repeal these standards.

Unless and until that bill is passed however, Americans will need to find viable alternatives. Are light emitting diodes (LED) the answer? They are great energy savers, consuming less energy and producing less heat. This makes them an excellent replacement for the old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, which expends 90% of the energy it uses as heat – an inefficiency that increases the amount of coal and gas needed to generate electricity.

In contrast, LEDs consume less energy and produce less heat, and have an average lifetime of 50,000 hours, compared to only 750 hours for an incandescent bulb – that is well over 50 times longer. For the average household, this amounts to approximately 20 years of use. Newer LEDs can even last up to 100,000 hours, which is a “cradle-to-grave” lifetime compared to other appliances and fixtures. This makes them ideal in locations that make replacing a light bulb inconvenient, while the significant reductions in power usage are clearly evident on the utility bill.

There are other advantages to LEDs as well. Unlike ordinary incandescent bulbs, LEDs have no filament, and unlike compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL), they contain no mercury. Discovered in 1907, light emitted by luminescence is current flowing through a semi-conductor material causing electrons to emit photons as they change energy levels. They are non-toxic and do not emit ultraviolet radiation, making them safer alternatives. Various types of LEDs also have dimming characteristics, which is great for reducing light pollution. There is no warm-up period, so they ignite quickly when switched on. This makes them ideal in small devices like cell phones to calculators.

In contrast for bright, clear and balanced illumination, CFL’s emit a soft bright light which is suitable for a 360 degree spatial glow while LED’s emit a harsh directional bright luminosity which is perfect for outdoor flood lighting.

There are downsides to LEDs. The technology still has a ways to go. Hewlett-Packard was among the first to use Monsanto’s LED technology in the late 1960s, integrating tiny LEDs into its calculators. It was not until the 1990s that LEDs were even bright enough to be practical as a light source. The red colour temperature was not stabilised until just a few years ago, and the challenge that remains today is controlling the bluish hue and dissipating the heat inside the socket, generated by the chips fitted inside. They also remain bulky, and in their current incarnation are not viable as a complete replacement for existing light fixtures. Unless LED technology improves in the near future, technological advances such as the development of a next-generation incandescent light bulb may surprisingly overtake LEDs.

Solarpowergetics is poised to introduce induction light bulbs, tubes and fixtures in the global market. Like CFLs, these are non-toxic and can last up to 100,000 hours at a very reasonable cost.

There are projects attempting to kick start LED development. Osram Sylvania of Germany and smaller LED specialists such as the Lighting Sciences Group of Satellite Beach, Florida, are finding solutions that produce less heat in the socket.

However, another major hindrance to the widespread adoption of LEDs is their cost. LEDs are still expensive, averaging $50 for a 13-watt light bulb that will replace a 100-watt incandescent light bulb. While LED prices are coming down, they cannot be truly cost effective until their chipboards, which are built on a sapphire wafer, are replaced with different composite materials. Professor Colin Humphreys, Director of Research in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride, recently developed an innovative technique for growing GaN on large silicon wafers. This incredible technology could deliver a tenfold reduction in LED manufacturing costs. Already used for bicycle headlamps, GaN LEDs may well be entering households and business within the next five to ten years.

These developments all promise a practical energy-saving lighting solution that delivers on the dual promises of great value and long life. Whether these be next-gen LEDs, CFLs, induction lamps or even next-gen incandescent bulbs, the various technologies are shifting in development at ludicrous speed. Requirement to enforce compliance by overt government interference should step aside in favour of a free market.

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