Let there be intelligent light: The case for LEDs

Light is the fastest known phenomenon in the universe, capable of traveling at 186,282 miles per second.

The lighting business, by contrast, is one of the slowest industries in the world.

Think about it for a moment. Consumers and businesses around the world spend over $100 billion on light bulbs and fixtures annually, and over $600 billion on electricity to power them.

Yet the lion’s share of that money gets thrown out the window. The incandescent bulb, still the most popular bulb with consumers in the U.S., typically only uses 10 percent of the power fed into them to create light. The rest gets turned into heat. That explains why you see them in Easy Bake Ovens and reptile terrariums. In all, 23 percent of the electricity in the U.S. gets gobbled up by lighting; 18 percent goes to power bulbs and the remaining 4 to 5 percent gets used to run air conditioners to eliminate the waste heat they generate.

This rampant consumption, moreover, isn’t easy to modulate. Only a small percentage of lights are connected to networks for dynamic dimming. If the lights above your head right now were dimmed by 40 percent to save power, you probably wouldn’t notice, but the capability probably doesn’t exist.

A digital future

Everything else has gone digital. Lighting is literally the last vestige of the vacuum tube era.

It wasn’t always this way. Lighting was once one of the most innovative industries on the planet. Thomas Edison’s bulb, unfurled on December 31, 1879, fundamentally changed human society. People could suddenly work and socialize around the clock. The midtown section of Broadway became known as the “The Great White Way” because of the blazing arc lights. A nighttime stroll was no longer a scary prospect reserved for emergencies. Neon and fluorescent lights soon followed.

But then complacency began to creep in. Manufacturers concentrated on driving down costs and boosting volumes. Innovation became an expensive luxury rather than a necessity. Consumers found it easier to replace bulbs all of the time rather than demand something different.

Luckily, the situation is now changing. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) — which are semiconductors that emit light — only consume a fraction of the power of conventional bulbs. Car manufacturers, TV makers, street light manufacturers and makers of industrial equipment have already turned to LEDs to reduce power.

In the past few years, LED makers have also managed to cut the price and boost the performance of their products. Early LED bulbs emitted a cold light you could describe as Alien Autopsy White. But now you can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and pick up LED bulbs that emit warm light — just like the light that comes from incandescent bulbs — for $25 or less. The bulbs will save you $10 or more a year and last for decades.

Networked lighting

Even more importantly, LED companies will soon demonstrate the latent intelligence of light. LEDs are chips, after all, which means they can be infinitely tuned or connected to networks.

Festival Hydro will soon give — as in for free — 100,000 LED bulbs equipped with wireless chips to residential and business customers in Stratford, Ontario that have smart meters. Through the smart meters and wireless connections, customers will essentially let Festival Hydro dim their lights during  peak periods or off-hours. (Bridgelux will provide the LED technology while Anycomm will provide the software for controlling the system for the pilot.)

If trials like these succeed, utilities will start giving out millions of free LEDs. The power consumption avoided will let them postpone investing millions into new fossil fuel power plants for years.

By integrating other chips and transistors, LED bulbs can be turned into security alarms, carbon monoxide sensors and motion detectors. Some stores want to deploy LEDs to monitor the length of checkout lines for better service.

You will even see bulbs that help you sleep better. Think of all this as a marriage between lighting design and Moore’s Law.

It has taken the electronics industry and the lighting industry years to get to this point. Consumers are attached to old fashioned bulbs and really don’t want to spent too much time thinking about light bulbs and most manufacturers have been happy to go along with the status quo. But high power prices, climate change and escalating air pollution demand changes. Fortunately, those changes will also open the door to indispensable applications and use case scenarios that we don’t even know about yet.

The future looks brighter every day.

Bill Watkins is the CEO of Bridgelux while Rob Praske is the CEO and founder of Anycomm.