Tag Archives: LEDs

Searching for the perfect LED light bulb, 50 years after its invention

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.

Breaking: U.S. delays bulb ban. Is Ontario poised to backtrack on its commitment?

When the Canadian federal government decided earlier this year to delay plans to phase out inefficient light bulbs, it drew the ire of environmental groups who argued the delay was unnecessary and would further set back the government’s already weak emissions-reduction strategy. The Pembina Institute, for example, said the two-year delay — from Jan 1, 2012 to Jan 1, 2014 — would negate 13 million of avoidable greenhouse gas emissions and potentially $300 million in permanent energy savings.

Fortunately, the provinces can do their own thing. As of Jan. 1, 2010, for example, retailers in British Columbia have been prohibited from restocking 75-watt and 100-watt incandescent bulbs. It was also assumed that Ontario would follow through with a similar commitment beginning Jan. 1, 2012, but there’s a strong possibility the government will backtrack at the 11th hour.

I was curious about the status of the planned phaseout, so put in a query to the Ontario Ministry of Energy. Here was the initial reply: “Following the decision by the federal government, Ontario is reviewing its options to proceed with proposed efficiency standards for general service lighting,” wrote spokesman Paul Gerard in an e-mailed reply. I asked whether the review would continue into next year, meaning the government would miss the Jan. 1 start date of the phaseout. “The outcome of the review will be announced very shortly, before the new year,” Gerard replied.

I’m not expecting good news — you never get good news during the holiday season. It may be that the province will stick to its guns and follows through, but I’m getting the feeling they won’t given the fact that, just today, U.S. Congress succeeded in neutering its own country’s 2012 light bulb phaseout by preventing the U.S. Department of Energy from enforcing the law, as detailed in the Energy and Independence Security Act 2007.

That would be a tremendous shame, making one question whether Ontario — despite the rhetoric — is taking the issue of greenhouse-gas reductions seriously. It would also further tarnish Canada’s already lackluster reputation on the climate file in the aftermath of climate talks in Durban, South Africa. At a time when we should be adding to our efforts, it seems we’re instead backtracking on previous commitments, including delaying our participation in the Western Climate Initiative (fortunately Quebec is following through). The momentum is in the wrong direction, and this is alarming. Perhaps some public pressure is needed over the next few days to convince Ontario to stick with its guns and start the light bulb phaseout Jan. 1, as planned.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about banning incandescent bulbs — this is about bulb efficiency, where compact fluorescent bulbs and LED bulbs have the advantage. But there have been innovations around incandescent technology as well. As Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, pointed out today, “five manufacturers are now producing and selling efficient incandescent bulbs that meet the standards.”  In the U.S. context law-abiding companies will still follow the rule. “Less scrupulous companies will take advantage of the lack of enforcement, selling products that waste energy and increase energy costs for consumers. If many manufacturers take advantage of the lack of enforcement, recent investments that these five manufacturers have made to produce efficient lamps could be undermined.”

Ontario needs to consider this as well. Many companies have made business decisions based on the expectation of a phaseout starting Jan. 1. Companies such as Sears Canada and IKEA have already stopped selling (inefficient) incandescent bulbs, proving that the time is right to follow through. There’s no justification for putting on the brakes now. Indeed, by forging ahead Ontario can stand out as a leader and not fall under the shadow of a federal government that’s more concerned about short-term economic gain than the long-term health of our economy and environment.

So what path will you choose, Mr. McGuinty?

$20 LED lightbulb at Home Depot a welcome start, but call me when it hits $10 — even better, $5

My Clean Break column for this Monday acknowledges Home Depot for selling the first sub-$20 LED lightbulb for a standard household light socket. It was only months ago — weeks, even — that the $40 pricepoint was being tossed around. These lower prices can’t come any faster. I respect the compact fluorescent bulb, I really do, but it just doesn’t cut it for me. Mercury. Premature blowouts. The light quality has gotten much better, and the price has come a long, long way — $1.50 a bulb in most places compared to $11 or $12 a decade ago. But LEDs are just so much more superior.

As we wait for the perfect and affordable household light bulb, it’s nice to see niche LED markets thriving, such as that for municipal streetlights. Companies such as Halifax-based LED Roadway Lighting are making great headway with products that can lower energy consumption by at least 50 per cent and up to 80 per cent and offer better quality and reduced maintenance.

GE suspends development of “high-efficiency incandescent”


Back in February 2007 General Electric announced that it had made key advancements in the development of a high-efficiency incandescent (HEI) light bulb that would be as efficient as a compact fluorescent bulb (CFLs) but without the mercury and with better light quality. Early versions would hit the market by 2010, the company said. GE basically saw the writing on the wall, as several jurisdictions — including Australia, Canada and several U.S. states — had announced the same year plans to ban inefficient light bulbs somewhere between 2012 and 2015. The HEI was basically the last kick at the can for the 100-plus year old Edison incandescent.

Then, in October 2007, GE announced it was closing plants and cutting hundreds of employees as part of a restructuring of its lighting business. The old inefficient bulb was toast. GE would instead focus its efforts on LEDs, Organic LEDs, and its HEI technology. Harvard business school professor Daniel Snow said GE’s HEI was the company’s “last gasp” of inspiration before the inevitable, final death of the Edison bulb.

A year has passed since GE’s restructuring. I decided to find out the status of the HEI so e-mailed the folks at GE to get an update. Here’s the reply I got today from GE spokesman David Schuellerman:

GE Consumers & Industrial and GE Global Research have suspended the development of the high-efficiency incandescent lamp (HEI) to place greater focus and investment on what we believe will be the ultimate in energy efficient lighting — light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Research and development of these technologies is moving at an impressive pace and will be ready for general lighting in the near future. LEDs and OLEDs used in general lighting are now poised to surpass the projected efficiency levels of HEI, along with other energy-efficient technologies like fluorescent, and have the additional benefits of long life and durability.

So there you have it: The century-old bulb that anchored the GE brand and made GE a global leader in lighting is, after one last gasp in 2007, officially dead.

RIP