By: Brendon Sarisky
Several years ago, citing energy savings and the desire to reduce environmental impact, consumers and businesses began replacing their traditional, incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. Now, the lighting industry has just begun undergoing yet another shift to an emergent technology: light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, also called solid-state lighting. While these lights had been used previously in traffic lights, improvements to the specifications have led to broader use, including back-lighting for LCD TVs, laptop screens, and smartphones. Current LED bulbs are more expensive to purchase than the already-pricey CFL bulbs, but they last much longer, consume even less power and emit less heat than CFL, while putting out even more light. For example, an LED light that would replace a 60 watt incandescent bulb or a watt CFL, uses only 9 or 10 watts of power while lasting 25 times longer than the old bulb. That means less power consumed, but more light produced. So, while the upfront cost is higher, the buyer will purchase less bulbs over time and pay less in electricity costs to power them. This makes them ideal for commercial buildings. Replacements for those long, tube-style fluorescent bulbs you see in office buildings are also produced. As manufacturing techniques improve and companies leverage increasing economies of scale, the cost to make these bulbs drop, and so have the prices. Thus, while consumer LED prices are just now coming into the affordable range for most homeowners, businesses have begun switching over to LED. Government incentives for buying LED bulbs are also available, to assist with the transition. Another environmental benefit of LED lights, aside from decreased energy usage, is that, unlike CFL bulbs they do not contain mercury, so they're easier to recycle, removing some burden from local recycling plants.
Automakers (luxury and economy brands alike) are now replacing xenon or halogen headlights with new LED arrays, due to their increased brightness, great longevity, and smaller housings, which allow for more creative front-end designs and light patterns than previously possible. These companies also prefer that LED produce a "whiter" light than traditional bulbs. Christmas lights are also transitioning to LED bulbs as well. Although they are still producing CFL bulbs for now, LED bulbs have forced existing lighting companies like General Electric, Philips, and Sylvania to adapt to the new technology, lest they be left behind. After all, no one wants to be the next Kodak or Polaroid, which both failed to adapt to new camera technologies and are now shadows of their former selves. LED production for electronics has helped boost firms like Cree to great success. Cree is using this money to break into the light bulb market, since they don't have to explicitly pay another company for the LEDs for use in the bulbs they produce.
One new market that has been enabled by LED bulbs is smart lighting. Since the bulbs themselves are smaller and produce less heat, electronics can be added to the housing, allowing wireless communication with a base station. You can purchase a smart lighting kit that lets you set automated schedules, dim, toggle on and off, and even change the color of your smart lights using your smartphone from anywhere in the world. You can also have lights that respond automatically to day and night using sensors. Other new products like wearables (lights integrated into clothing and accessories) are in development as well, but still a long way off from feasibility.
Businesses have definitely taken notice of LED lighting. For the 2015 Super Bowl, The University of Phoenix stadium installed a new LED lighting system by Cree which cut energy costs by 75% while providing more uniform, photographer-friendly lighting. The newcomer has even replaced the old incandescent and halogen bulbs that illuminate that bastion of tradition, the New Year's Eve ball at Times Square in New York City. If that's not a sign that LED is the future of lighting -- at least, until something better & cheaper comes along, of course -- I don't know what is.