Why the future of the light bulb is flat

Philips launched a dimmable, LED lightbulb Monday with a completely different shape. Instead of a round bulb-shape, this lightbulb is a relatively flat circle. Philips is calling it “slim” but it’s really a new design aiming to eliminate the ugly problem of heavy heat sinks needed by LED light bulbs today.

Much like how the increasingly powerful computing capabilities inside our phones have needed new designs and UI’s (touchscreens) to help us take advantage of them, Philips is hoping this new design helps lower the cost and increase adoption of LEDs. A Philips spokeswoman wrote via email:

“The flat surface helps conduct heat away from the LEDs, eliminating the need for the heavy aluminum heat sinks associated with LED bulbs. This eliminates the cost of the bulb, while still delivering omni-directional light.”

The bulb will be available Jan. 2 at Home Depot, and the spokeswoman couldn’t offer a price saying it would be set by the retailer. Given that LED bulbs can range from under $10 to $60 (for Philips’ hue connected color-changing LEDs), lowering the price will be an important element of design. And while LED’s last longer than their incandescent counterparts it can be hard to get anyone to spend the cost of a dinner out for a lightbulb.

From left to right: The Philips SlimStyle, an LED with heat sink and a traditional 60-watt bulb.

From left to right: The Philips SlimStyle, an LED with heat sink and a traditional 60-watt bulb.

However, we’re nearing a tipping point in the lighting market thanks to federal laws that will go into effect on Jan. 1 that will prohibit manufacturing or importing the traditional 60-watt incandescent bulbs. I know, we stockpiled a few.

So Philip’s SlimStyle will be an interesting experiment. Will we embrace a new style of light bulb (light-disc?) if it brings the cost of an LED into the range of a traditional incandescent? The bulb purportedly cuts down on energy consumption by 85 percent and lasts 25 times longer than a traditional 60-watt incandescent. But up front cost challenges could keep LED adoption in the slow lane.

Can this new design offer a technological improvement (eliminating the heat sink) that lowers the cost of LEDs to the point of public acceptance?