The Eventual Dominance of LED Lighting|
Article- October 2012 By Larson Electronics.com
Larson Electronics Class 1 Division 2 Low Voltage LED Light
In 1962, a gallon of gas cost an average of 31 cents. A barrel of oil was around 3 dollars, and coal was cheap and plentiful. Furthermore, pollution awareness and the effects of energy production on the environment were still in their early formative stages, with much of the public focused mainly on the visible and obvious forms of waste contamination such as oil spills and trash rather than rising CO2 levels and greenhouse gases. It was also in 1962 that the first practical LEDs were developed by Nick Holonyak, Jr. while working for the General Electric Company.
During the 60’s the United States was still enjoying an era of cheap and plentiful energy. Energy efficient lighting technology received little attention, and even less funding. The public didn’t worry much about turning off the lights whenever they left a room, or managing their electricity usage much at all. Fossil fuels seemed unlimited, and the world was entering into a phase of growth and consumerism that would eventually reach historic proportions. These facts make it all the more prophetic that Holonyak would state in an article published by Readers Digest in 1963 that LED lighting would replace Edisons’ incandescent lamp.
Consider the time period and the attitudes towards energy we’ve just mentioned. Why on earth would some little known scientist who developed a light source with at the time feeble output feel so confident in that technologies’ potential? What could lead him to think that something as innocuous as a tiny piece of semi-conductor, emitting only the dimmest of light, could someday replace the cheap, effective and bright incandescent bulb? To make such a prediction about your own invention is certainly not unheard of. Inventors the world over have made similar claims of revolutionary change regarding their designs on a regular basis. The difference here, however, is that in most cases the invention becomes anything but revolutionary and rather quickly disappears into obscurity. In Holyonaks’ case, not only was his prediction correct, but quite possibly less ambitious than the reality of LEDs has proven to be.
Fast forward into the 1970’s and we run into the oil crisis and a sudden international concern with the state of energy supplies. The cost of producing energy began to skyrocket at this time, and energy efficiency and conservation became household terms seemingly overnight. Governments and scientific bodies the world over began looking at our energy production in a new light, and began realizing with a growing certainty that our fossil fuels were limited, and the impact on the environment from producing energy only going to intensify. It’s during this time in the early 1970’s that more efficient lighting first began receiving serious interest, and fluorescent lamp technology became the most common form of commercial and industrial lighting in use.
Fluorescent lighting provided some improvements in energy efficiency, particularly in large scale applications such as school, manufacturing, and commercial illumination. The drawbacks to fluorescent lighting quickly became apparent however as it became clear that the practical application of fluorescent lighting was limited. The large size of fluorescent fixtures and the unwieldy design coupled with the need for added operating hardware in the form of ballasts negated some of the effectiveness of fluorescent lighting and added to its expense. These larger fixtures were ill suited to applications requiring smaller designs, and it was often difficult to match bulbs of the correct color temperature together in the same fixture. Despite these drawbacks, fluorescent lighting flourished and became one of the top choices for industrial and commercial applications due to it much greater efficiency over incandescent lighting.
By the late 1980’s the move towards developing energy efficient lighting technologies had gathered a lot of steam, and LEDs began to receive a great of renewed interest. Improvements in LED technology and design had resulted in LEDs capable of producing white light at output levels practical enough for general illumination applications. The technology remained fairly raw however, and a great deal of improvement remained to be accomplished. LEDs produced a “cold” light that was often bluish in color, and users found the light simply too cold for true practical use. Despite this, LEDs began to grow in popularity due to their very low energy requirements and extreme durability, leading manufacturers to install them in a wide variety of specialty lighting devices such as rechargeable emergency flashlights and portable carry lights.
It is at this point that LED technology truly began to advance at an almost exponential rate. Better semi-conducting materials, improved coatings, and better LED driver designs began to appear, and lumen output and color quality of LEDs began to show significant improvements on an almost monthly basis. Developers such as Cree, Philips, General Electric and others were putting a lot of development effort into LEDs by the late 1990’s, but there was one more push needed to really give LED technology the development boost it needed to really start to reach its potential. By 2005, LED development would get this boost in the form of two new pieces of legislation; the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
With these two pieces of legislation signed and enacted, the fate of the incandescent bulb was all but sealed. Calling for tighter energy efficiency standards that current incandescent lighting and some fluorescent lighting technologies simply could not meet, the end result is the eventual phasing out of most incandescent bulb production and some fluorescent lamp types. With a newly created void in the lighting industry looming, lighting developers quickly shifted their emphasis to LED technology in anticipation of the eventual end of the incandescent bulb.
Now in 2012, we see quite well just how visionary professor Holonyak truly was. Current LED technology has finally reached a level of maturity that gives it an advantage over almost all other forms of lighting. Able to greatly exceed the efficiency of most other forms of lighting, extremely more durable and far longer lived, and able to be applied to almost any lighting application imaginable, LEDs are now projected by most experts to become the dominant form of lighting in as little as 15 years. With LED lighting fully integrated into the mainstream, experts expect the total amount of energy used in the United States for lighting to be slashed in half. Entire new markets and companies devoted to LED production and design have appeared, and a new multi-billion dollar industry is expected to arise from LED technology as well.
This year marks 50 years since Nick Holonyak, Jr. developed the first practical LED and made his now almost legendary prediction. It is only rarely that a single person can be responsible for a truly fundamental breakthrough in technology that will affect and change the lives of millions. Somehow, at a time when the world really didn’t need them or care, Holonyak saw the potential of LEDs and how the future would eventually welcome their addition. In this case, it will likely be safe to say Nick Holonyak, Jr. will join those thin ranks of visionaries.