Last week, the most prestigious award in the world of science was presented to three scientists for an invention that’s bringing light to even the darkest places in the world.
On first impressions, the humble blue light emitting diodes (or LED for short) may not strike you as the most impressive of inventions. But the impact that these tiny lights have had on the world cannot be overstated.
The brainchild of three Japan-born scientists, Isamu Akasaki, 85, Hiroshi Amano, 54, and Shuji Nakamura, 60, these energy saving devices have revolutionised the way the world looks at light production and had a massive impact not only on the technology industry but the lives of millions of people around the world. A truly international undertaking, the project pooled the considerable resources of Meijo and Nagoya Universities in Japan and the prestigious University of California, Santa Barbara.
Red and green LEDs have been commonplace in the electronics industry for several decades. But the intricacies of creating the layering system of semiconductor materials necessary to deliver diodes that emit blue light has hitherto eluded scientists. With red, green and blue diodes, the creation of white light from LEDs is now possible, making high-powered filament based light a thing of the past.
As stated by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in their presentation of the Nobel Prize, the invention “triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology,” adding that “incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century, the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”
In terms of business, the invention of the blue LED is having an increasingly significant impact. According to recent estimates from Royal Philips NV, the lighting industry is currently worth a staggering $75 billion. With LED lights growing from a 4% market share to 15% of global sales between 2009 and 2013, the shift away from traditional lighting is seemingly unstoppable. In Asia, the picture is even clearer, with LEDs now accounting for around 20% of all new lighting purchases.
The biggest change is the increased longevity of LED lights. The traditional light bulb has a lifespan of just two years. But with a comparative illuminative capacity, LED lights last up to 20 years. It’s good news for the environment but not for the thousands of people who are facing redundancy or have lost their jobs already. As recently as last month, electronics giant, Phillips, announced it would be segregating its lighting business in the face of increased costs, fierce competition and lower than expected sales. And that’s after similar announcements from Siemens last year.
Even giants like Philips and Osram, the two biggest lighting makers in the world, are finding it hard to compete with the technological superiority of Asia. Asian companies like Samsung and Toshiba are ahead of the curve with their existing capacity to make the advance semiconductors used in the manufacture of LEDs for computers and televisions.
The most important impact of LED lighting is the potential it has in new markets like Africa. In many remote parts of the developing world, access to the electricity grid is either minimal or non-existent. And with traditional light bulbs guzzling energy at an alarming rate, electric light was a luxury many people just couldn’t afford. But the incredible energy efficiency of LED lights means they can be run using solar power, giving even the most isolated people the chance to access electric light. This has created a great opportunity for companies like Phillips to enter new markets and provide people with a revolutionary technology that really can change their life.
At the heart of it is some pretty simple science. With most traditional light sources, a large proportion of the electricity they use is converted to heat. However, with an LED, the electricity is converted directly to light particles, meaning that little energy is lost in the process.
With the help of three exceptional scientists and one tiny invention, the world is now a much brighter place.