Lighting. Admit it, you've never found it that interesting.
It's one of the underlying reasons that the incandescent still accounts for around 80 percent of the bulbs sold to consumers in the U.S. Consumers just grab and go when it comes to lights, just like how they buy toothpaste.
Traditional light bulbs have had a remarkable run, if you think about it. The Edison bulb, invented in 1879, turns 130 on Dec. 31, 2009. During the same year the bulb was invented, the Anglo-Zulu War broke out and Rutherford B. Hayes was in the White House. The lighting market, though, will undergo a radical realignment over the next three to seven years. And here's why.
1. Regulation: Australia plans to phase out incandescent bulbs next year and the European Union will follow in 2012. The U.S. has imposed efficiency regulations that will ultimately push the incandescent to the margins by 2014. Canada, the Philippines, and others have similar plans. Despite some strong objections, incandescents in all likelihood will fade away.
2. Inefficiency: The Incandescent only uses around 5 percent of its power to produce light. The rest goes to heat. That's why pet stores stick them inside of their lizard terrariums. Fluorescents are much better. A 15-watt fluorescent can produce as much light as a 60-watt bulb. But fluorescents contain mercury – LEDs don't. And LEDs last far longer (40,000 hours versus 15,000 hours) and consume half the power.
Lighting consumes 25 percent of the energy in commercial buildings and 12 percent in homes, according to the DOE's Buildings Energy Data Book for 2008. Computers only account for 4 percent of the energy in commercial buildings and 1 percent in homes.
Most lights also illuminate indiscriminately. Look up at an urban skyline. Many of those lit-up offices are empty. The shape of North America, Asia and Europe are somewhat clearly defined by night lighting. That's great if you're planning a bombing raid from Neptune, but doesn't do much for humans.
3. Age: Light bulbs remain the last vestige of the vacuum-tube era. Tube TVs and stereos are gone. Computers went digital in the 1950s. Other amusing light anniversaries: Georges Claude invented the neon light in 1911 while the fluorescent was invented in 1927 in Germany. The compact fluorescent, invented by former GE engineer Ed Hammer, came to light in 1976. GE loved it – many thought it would be impossible – but initially balked at building it because of the cost of a factory. (White light LEDs came around in the early 1990s courtesy of Shuji Nakamura.)
4. Ubiquity: Fluorescent tube lights account for 85 percent of the lights in U.S. commercial office buildings and most of them can't be dimmed to save power, according to Mike D'Amour, CEO of Lumenergi, which has come up with a networked controlled dimmer for fluorescents and LEDs. Adura Technologies has something similar.
The average U.S. home has 52 light sockets, according to stats from Philips Lighting, and European homes have 40.
5. LEDs Have Come a Long Way: A year ago, LED bulbs cost close to $100. This year, Panasonic, Sharp and others plan to sell 60-watt equivalent bulbs for $40. In two years, LED bulbs that could replace conventional bulbs could cost around $25, say executives from U.S. companies like Bridgelux and Luminus Devices. LED bulbs can save anywhere from $2 to $10 more than incandescent or CFLs, depending on how and when you need light (Figure four to six hours a day with some peak period pricing thrown in where electricity costs more than the 11 cent per kilowatt hour figure.) Payoff, therefore, will become more palatable.
Perhaps more importantly, the color tone has improved. The latest bulbs don't sport that blue, harsh "E.T.'s Finger" tone as much anymore. Since the start of 2008, VCs have invested $290 million into lighting and large part of the total has gone to LEDs.
6. Governments and Commercial Establishments Are Already Converting: The lower maintenance costs are the real appeal here. Anchorage, Alaska installed 16,000 LED streetlights. The city estimates it saves $360,000 in power and $350,000 in not having to send maintenance crews out. Upscale food stores also claim that LED light, which doesn't generate heat, doesn't prematurely age produce or wine.
Other companies to keep an eye on: Renaissance Lighting, Osram, General Electric, Kaai, Soraa, Numentix, D.Light Design, AgiLight, Albeo, Cree.
7. The Plasmas Are Coming: High-intensity and low-intensity plasmas work like plasma TVs. An electrical current excites chemicals and produces light. Luxim, which originally sold its tiny bulb as a light for projection TVs, entered the market for public lighting last year. A single bulb puts out as much light as a street light. Topanga Technologies, a stealthy Khosla Ventures startup founded in part by Luxim alumni, has something similar.
Eden Park Illumination, meanwhile, wants to make a plasma bulb for homes. Founded by two University of Illinois professors, it has been showing prototypes for the last year and a half. The bulb is completely recyclable, contains no harmful chemicals like mercury, and is almost perfectly flat. Ultimately, you could make tables out of this.
8. OLEDs and Light-Emitting Capacitors: Think big sheets of plastic that emit light. General Electric, Kodak, Universal Display, Rohm and others have invested huge amounts of money into OLEDs. Potentially, OLEDs can use 100 percent of the power inserted into them to create light. Transparent OLEDs also make it possible to convert windows into light sources. Manufacturing and pricing remain challenges. Osram came out with an OLED lamp last year. It costs $10,000.
CeeLite has already started marketing light emitting capacitors, which are thicker but generally do the same thing. Some casinos have made staircases out of them. But, again, the price remains high.
9. Solar Lighting: Two types here. First, Sunlight Direct, which spun out of Oak Ridge National Labs, has created a dish that concentrates light on a roof and then shuttles it through offices with fiber optic cables. Electric lights fill in as the sun goes down, but the system can substantially reduce a company's light bill. Sunlight also has a tremendous visual quality. But the price is high.
EnergyFocus has a similar system, but it links fiber optic cables up to high intensity discharge lights. It uses more power, but you don't have to worry about synchronizing with lights. It has installed its fiber cables into freezer cases to replace fluorescents. Besides cutting light power, it reduced the load on the air conditioner because the fiber optic cables don't give off heat.
Then there is passive solar – i.e., figuring out ways to exploit the light coming in from your window better. The California Lighting Technology Center at UC Davis is one of the premier centers for this. It has been experimenting with sensors that can better dim electric lights to match the mood of the sun.
Alcoa and others also actively market light shelves. These are boards with a white reflective surface that stick half on the outside of a building and half on the inside. Sunlight bounces off the surface and washes the ceiling in light. You'd be surprised how much light it can generate.
10. Old TVs: Old is new here. Lumiette is marketing a thin (4-millimeters thick), long-lasting fluorescent bulb that was created to be a light source for LCD TVs. VU1, meanwhile, has a bulb that technically resembles an old TV tube: a tiny electron gun shoots electrons at a phosphor-coated piece of glass. (And as stated above Luxim was invented for TVs.)
11. Networking Lights: If LEDs represent the biggest opportunity in lighting, networking is a close second. Only around one percent of commercial buildings in California come with networked lights. A recent test by PG&E showed that light power could be cut by 50 percent or more. Besides Adura and Lumenergi, expect to see news from Johnson Controls, Honeywell, large software vendors like Microsoft, HID Laboratories, MetroLight, Enocean and others in the future.
Image of a flat-panel lamp from Lumiette.