Meet the new light bulb that lasts 20 years and uses one-tenth the power

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

In lighting, the future lies with the LED. It consumes almost no power at all, and lasts practically forever. Compact fluorescent lamps are going to be obsolete very soon.

In the USA, they’re coming soon; lights that last more than 20 years and use 90 per cent less electricity than even the ’new’ compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). They are called light emitting diodes (LEDs), and we already know about them; they are used for digital clocks and on car dashboards and blinker indicators.

But new advances in technology are making them useful for everything, from overhead lighting to desk lamps. The much-anticipated New Years Eve’s ball in Times Square in New York will be lighted with LEDs this year.

LEDs, which are semiconductors that convert electricity into light, cost more than CFLs. But they are growing in popularity nonetheless, because advanced semiconductor technology has made them much brighter than in the past. They also consume much less power and are perceived as ’greener’ than other lighting on the market.

Lighting is one of the simplest and most effective ways to lower electricity consumption. Lighting accounts for 20 per cent of the electricity consumed worldwide. In developing countries like India, that figure can go up to nearly 40 per cent in some areas.

LEDs last about 20 to 50 times longer than regular incandescent light bulbs. While CFLs have a longer life span then traditional light bulbs, they contain mercury, which is linked to cancer, leukemia and autism, and aren’t recycled properly. Not surprisingly, we will soon see lots of LED lamps, overhead lighting and even bulbs in the stores.

But they come at a price. In the US, a LED-light equivalent to a 60-watt light bulb will start off costing $75 to $100 (Rs3,000 to Rs4,000). Consumers will save more money than that over the life of the LED light, but consumers will be reluctant to come up with that kind of money for lighting.

That’s because white LEDs, in particular, cost a lot in the US, though coloured ones are cheaper. And since most lighting is dependent on white LEDs, the present cost of LED lighting in the US is very high.

Consequently, at present, LEDs only make up 1 per cent of the lighting market. But the small figure presents an opportunity as well as a challenge in the market. And, as usual, there are a number of start-ups trying to capitalise on the new technology in addition to the big players, which include General Electric, Philips and Sylvania.

However, the US seems to be far behind Asia where LEDs are concerned, both in terms of applicability and price. Here, the Chinese are the indisputable leaders. Chinese-made flashlights that run on a pump-action generator and a capacitor-based storage – which use no batteries at all – are available in India for around one dollar (Rs30 to Rs 50) each.

Other Chinese LED products are not too much more expensive. Table lamps powered by AA or AAA pencil batteries sell for around two dollars (Rs80), while single bright white LEDs (about 20 to 30 of which should be equal to a 60-watt lamp) retail at around 15 cents (Rs5) each.

But the US too has its contrarians. Mountain View (California) based start-up d.Light Designs, for example, plans to create affordable lighting to people living in South and South East Asia who presently rely on kerosene for their lighting needs. Only, they may be unaware that people in India themselves are doing precisely the same thing.

Worldwide, an estimated 1.6 billion people use Kerosene or oil mainly for lighting. People using kerosene for lighting can spend between 5 per cent and 30 per cent of their income on kerosene. LEDs have the potential to provide an affordable alternative to petroleum-based lighting.

Among the products on d.Light’s drawing board is a solar-powered LED lamp. Another has a rechargeable battery pack that can power the light for several days from a single charge, depending on how bright the customer sets light at.

Apart from the bottom of the pyramid, d.Light also plans to go after the more well-heeled camping market with its products. Other entrepreneurs are planning products like night lights and flash lights. That’s because the market for LED bulbs is limited owing to their present cost in the US.

White LEDs cost a lot, but the prices have already started to come down, are likely to continue to fall. It’s like the DVD-player market – players started out at around $800 (Rs32,000), but now cost as little as $25 (Rs1,000). A practical starting price point for LED bulbs in the US should be around $9.95 (Rs400).

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