Lighting Needs Some Bright Ideas

October 22, 2008
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Last week, the European Union joined Australia, the Philippines and Cuba in finalizing plans to outlaw the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2010. The U.S. plans to ban the bulbs beginning in 2012.

And for good reason. Incandescent light bulbs, which convert heat into light, are notoriously lazy, using only about 2% of the electricity they consume and wasting the rest as heat. Considering that lighting accounts for nearly one quarter of the world’s electricity use, the potential energy savings are prodigious. The prospect of converting those savings into profits has encouraged a clutch of companies to commercialize cutting-edge lighting technologies…

The lighting market is massive in scale and scope. The U.S. spends about $58 billion annually on a wide range of lighting systems, from traffic lights and exit signs to desk lamps and decorative Christmas bulbs. Unlike the incandescent era, next-generation lighting technologies are more narrowly tailored to meet the needs of niche markets.

Carmanah Technologies, a Canadian renewable energy company, is a case in point. Carmanah pioneered solar-powered lighting for airport runways, bus stops, railway crossings and other rugged environments in remote locales where grid-based electricity is unreliable at best. By using ultra-efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, rather than traditional light bulbs, the solar-powered systems can operate for long periods on small amounts of energy.

Like Carmanah, the lion’s share of next-generation lighting applications are based on LEDs, which produce light by channeling electricity through a semiconductor chip that converts electrons into photons, or electricity into light. The most powerful LEDs, which are not expected to enter commercial production until 2010, use only a fraction of the electricity used by incandescent bulbs and often outperform compact fluorescent bulbs in terms of energy efficiency…

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