It didn’t get much attention, but last week marked the 50th anniversary of the invention of the first visible light-emitting diode, or LED, a technology that is well on its way to transforming the lighting industry.
It was on Oct. 9, 1962, when Nick Holonyak Jr., a young scientist at General Electric, showed colleagues in a lab how he could cause a piece of semiconductor material made of gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide to emit visible light — in this case a red glow — when an electric current passed through it.
Four month later, Holonyak boldly predicted in an issue of Reader’s Digest that in time his invention would replace the incandescent light bulb. Through the 1970s orange, green and yellow LEDs appeared, and these proved useful in electronics devices.
Blue LEDs followed in the 1980s, and this development set the stage for white — the holy grail of lighting applications.
Over the years, white LEDs have grown bright and inexpensive enough to start making good on Holonyak’s decades-old prediction. Indeed, Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced earlier this month that by 2016 it will sell only LED light bulbs and fixtures in its stores.
Early next year, GE Lighting plans to release its first LED product designed to replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, a product first commercialized by GE founder Thomas Edison more than 100 years ago.
The technology is rapidly progressing. It’s gotten to the point where, by some estimates, there are more than 2,000 companies manufacturing LED products for commercial and residential lighting, says Ottawa entrepreneur Stephen Naor, a former executive at Nortel Networks and Newbridge Networks who these days is making it his business to know.
Earlier this year he co-founded a new company called Leapfrog Lighting, which is positioning itself as the industry’s most trusted authority on commercial and industrial LED products.
In Naor’s view, the LED options have become so plentiful that organizations looking to purchase them don’t know where to start. They know, generally, that LED lights use up to 75 per cent less energy than incandescent bulbs and can last up to 25 times longer — three times longer in the case of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).
They know that LED lights don’t contain mercury like CFLs, are more robust, can be dimmed, and offer a much higher quality of light. Sure, the bulbs are more expensive — a typical 60-watt-equivalent bulb goes for between $25 and $30 — but the price continues to fall.
And for organizations more interested in long-term savings than upfront cost, the payback can be quite attractive. With the right product, a payback of as low as three months is realistic in areas where lighting is required 24-hours a day, such as in a hospital.
But LED lighting products are not created equally, says Naor. Lighting quality and efficiency can vary from product to product, and even batch to batch. Some last longer than others. There are a range of prices.
There’s no shortage of confusion in the market. “A lot of buyers of LED lighting often find the performance they expected just isn’t there, and they’re disappointed,” he says.
Naor knows what he’s talking about. As co-founder and chief executive of Ottawa-based start-up Group IV Semiconductor, he spent the last decade trying to commercialize a long-lasting, highly efficient type of LED made out of silicon, which costs less and is more abundant than the expensive and exotic materials that make up existing LEDs.
Unfortunately, Group IV’s grand plan of making an even better, cheaper light bulb didn’t quite unfold as expected. The goal proved more challenging to reach than expected, and by 2010 disagreement among shareholders — the largest of which was high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla — led to a decision to suspend operations and put development on hold.
Left behind was highly-advanced lab equipment that could be used to test and validate the performance of existing LED lights on the market. “We decided to investigate what’s out there, and we investigated heavily,” says Naor.
They looked closely at several hundred LED manufacturers, and narrowed down the list to about 100. Of those, they got product samples and put each of them through a vigorous lab test. From there, they chose six products with the best balance of performance and cost, then travelled to the factories that made them — all in China, by the way — and negotiated supply agreements.
Of the bulbs Leapfrog Lighting carries, it tests each and every one of them before shipping them off to customers. “We want to certify every lamp we sell,” says Naor, adding that the company’s commitment is to constantly monitor the global marketplace, looking for new or improved products that raise the bar on performance and return on investment.
It’s an interesting approach that may prove quite useful in what are still early days in the LED lighting market, and it’s a great way to leverage equipment from a technology venture that couldn’t deliver fast enough on its promise.
Naor says there’s still some technology development going on in the background related to Group IV, and he sees great potential in using that technology to enhance the performance of existing LEDs on the market, possibly as early as next year.
But for now, Leapfrog Lighting’s focus will be on simplifying and bringing confidence to a market that has been 50 years in the making.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.