On the brink of a lighting revolution

Now that global warming and the simultaneous spike in the cost of gasoline have finally slapped people in the face and gotten their attention, there seems to be a sudden interest in any-and-all methods to significantly reduce both carbon emissions and energy use.

This is a good thing but most don’t realize yet that there isn’t a magic bullet and we need to attack global warming and energy consumption on several fronts: a little hybrid engine and ethanol use here; a smidgen of wind power generation there; incandescent lightbulb replacement up front and pretty soon we’ve made a big dent in both consumption and emissions.

I’ve been watching one area pretty closely: LED and other lighting technology. Quite some time ago my bride and I changed all of the incandescent bulbs in our house with compact fluorescents which — while still a disposable issue since they contain trace amounts of mercury — only use about 25% of the energy it takes to power that 139 year old invention of Thomas Edison: the incandescent light bulb.

LED’s have come a long way and are found in flashlights, as automotive and signage illumination, and soon residential lighting. Worldwide about 20% of energy consumption is for lighting and LED’s could cut that in half. “We’re on the brink of a new lighting revolution,” says Jerry Simmons, head of the solid-state lighting programme at America’s Sandia National Laboratory, quoted in this article (in fact one of the best I’ve read yet) in The Economist.

How’s THIS for a comparison?:

LEDs have become popular because they have numerous advantages over conventional light bulbs. For one thing, they last much longer: they can endure up to a decade of non-stop use compared with a few months or less for incandescent bulbs. They also take up much less space (a typical LED is about the size of the rubber on the end of a pencil), are shock resistant and, perhaps most important of all, are extremely energy-efficient.

An incandescent bulb, made of a wire filament encased in glass, emits only 5% of the energy it consumes as light; the rest is wasted as heat. Fluorescent lights, which consist of tubes filled with mercury vapour, are roughly four times more efficient. LEDs, however, contain no mercury and already rival fluorescents in efficiency. Upfront costs make them too expensive for most general lighting applications, but experts expect that to change over the next five years as prices come down and efficiencies go up.

I’ve been on the hunt for some time for LED’s that output the same relative lumens (a measurement of light output) of an incandescent lightbulb (a typical 60 watt bulb outputs 800 lumens). I’ve seen many clusters-of-LED’s bulbs that put out more than that, but they’re in spot bulbs that point a narrow beam of light. The ambient lighting output of a typical incandescent or compact flourescent bulb isn’t available for sale…yet…but I’m keeping an eye peeled!

I should note that my other eye is scanning for someone in government — or interested in governing and being elected to office — to take a leadership energy and have a national energy policy that clearly articulates specific actions each of us can take to reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Dr. Simmons had this to say about incandescent bulbs — which are, in actuality, vacuum tubes like those in the first computers and televisions — at the end of the article, “Ultimately, incandescent light bulbs will end up in a museum, just like vacuum tubes did for electronics.”

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1 Comment

  1. Lars Plougmann on September 28, 2006 at 8:16 am

    I would expect to see led-powered lightbulb-shaped bulbs with clever reflectors built in to make leds backward compatible with old lamps and fittings so that they shine the light in a way that the lamp is designed for.

    But the most interesting aspect is the new variations of lighting design that leds are enabling.



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