Two years ago, South Korea's Mirae Lighting had an expensive problem on its hands. In 1997, it had designed a long-lasting, high-brightness light source for LCD TVs. Unfortunately, building the factory took close to $30 million and several years. In the end, the factory could only make light sources for TVs measuring 32-inches or smaller.
"By the time it was complete, the industry leapfrogged past 32-inch to 42- and 52-inch," said Rich Mintz, director of sales for Lumiette. "To retool the facility would have taken inordinate amounts of money."
It was about that time that then-Samsung exec, Lumiette co-founder (and Mirae customer) Noel Park came up with an idea: just sell those things as light bulbs.
Next year, Lumiette – which effectively bought the technology and underlying patents – will see if there is a second act in the lives of illumination technologies. The Cupertino, Calif.-based startup wants to mass produce the thin, florescent lamps which it calls Flat Panel Lights (FPLs) as alternatives to incandescent bulbs, florescent tube lighting and even arrays of light emitting diodes. Investors include chairman William Miller, the former CEO of SRI and former provost of Stanford University, and David Aslin, a venture partner with Nexit Ventures. The first products are expected to start rolling off the line in the middle of 2009.
Welcome to the new world of lighting. Escalating electricity costs, updated building codes and legislation aimed at curbing energy consumption has generated a massive wave of innovation in the lighting field. Lighting consumes approximately 20 percent to 22 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and a substantial portion of that power is wasted because traditional bulbs in many cases are antiquated and generate more heat than light.
Australia, Canada, California and China have all passed legislation aimed at phasing out the familiar incandescent bulb, invented way back in 1879. (The last new bulb to go big time in the market, the compact florescent, was invented by Ed Hammer at GE in 1976.)
Some of the new bulbs coming to market include the breathmint-sized streetlight from Luxim, the flat plasma lights from University of Illinois spin-out Eden Park, the CRT TV-like light bulb from Vu1, the sunlight harvesters from Sunlight Direct and the high-efficiency LEDs from Bridgelux, Luminus Devices and others. While something will replace the bulbs of today, it's not certain who will win.
If anything, Lumiette competes on paper well against the incumbents and many of the new entrants. FPLs emit between 52 and 70 lumens per watt, depending on the shape and size of the bulb, better than many traditional tube-shaped florescent bulbs. But FPLs also contain an internal reflective layer that pushes the light to where people need it, giving it an overall better efficiency. Over a ten year period, the company claims its bulb will consume $396 worth of electricity, compared to $461 for a compact florescent and $2,592 for an incandescent.
"About 97 percent of the light goes forward," Mintz said.
The light will also last 60,000 hours, or 16 years if turned on for ten hours a day, the company says That's around five times longer than traditional fluorescents and on par with LEDs. However, they cost one tenth the price of an equivalent array of LEDs. Another benefit over LEDs: FPLs don't emit much heat. You can touch them. By contrast, LEDs require heat sinks to dissipate the heat generated at the back of the chip. Start-ups like SFSD are coming out with parts for that problem.
The bulbs also come with a novel form factor. They are only four millimeters thick. While that's thicker than OLED lights or Eden Park's plasma light, OLEDs may not come to market for a number of years. (Eden Park plans to come out in 2009 or 2010.) Traditional fluorescents are much thicker.
"It is a florescent at heart with a different form factor," Mintz said.
Additionally, unlike many new light bulb entrants, Lumiette won't have to spend vast amounts of capital on a factory. Mirae will serve as a manufacturing partner. (Interestingly, Luxim's bulb was also first invented for the TV market.)
The secret sauce in Lumiette's light is the electrode. In a traditional florescent, the electronics sit inside of the vacuum tube. In Lumiette's, the electrode is on the outside. Besides allowing the company to make the bulb thin, putting the electronics on the outside gives it a longer life because metal components aren't deteriorating inside the tube.
External electrodes also make the FPLs easy to dim. The dimmable version of Lumiette's system will cost around 10 percent to 20 percent less than a traditional dimmable florescent tube with a ballast, Mintz claimed. Lumiette plans to sell both the light bulb and the ballast, the device that controls electrical flow.
"The external electrode takes away all of the difficulty of dimming," he said.
The company's non-dimmable lights will cost more than standard fluorescents, but will cost less over time because of lower maintenance and replacement costs.
FPLs can be manufactured to various dimensions. Each FPL is made up of small, tubular light channels. Individually, these look like the thin fluorescents deployed underneath kitchen counters. In reality, though, the FPL is a single, continuous bulb. An array of 12 light channels measuring 12 inches in length serves as a square ceiling light. The first products will probably be an array of 24 channels each measuring 4 inches each that can replace fluorescent fixtures often seen in ceilings.
One of the first demonstrations of the technology will come overseas: an unnamed organization has commissioned a 25-foot wall of light.
Like many other new bulb makers, the company will initially aim its products at the commercial products and mostly at new construction projects. It will also have to convince lamp makers to come up with fixtures that can accommodate its somewhat unusual shape.
Unlike plasma lights or LEDs, Lumiette will also have to deal with the chemical issues. The light contains argon, neon and tiny amounts of mercury like any florescent. If it breaks, these escape.