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Future light: The LED lighting explosion

They say good things take time. Tell that to the inventor of the first compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), Ed Hammer, who developed his idea in 1975 while working as a senior physicist at GE Lighting. It took the mass market decades to cop onto the environmental and cost-saving benefits of the low-energy bulbs. But after being heralded as the energy-efficient lighting of the future, CFLs have since been criticised for their mercury content. So what’s next? Another form of lighting that has also been on the backburner for decades.

They say good things take time. Tell that to the inventor of the first compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), Ed Hammer, who developed his idea in 1975 while working as a senior physicist at GE Lighting. It took the mass market decades to cop onto the environmental and cost-saving benefits of the low-energy bulbs. But after being heralded as the energy-efficient lighting of the future, CFLs have since been criticised for their mercury content. So what’s next? Another form of lighting that has also been on the backburner for decades.

Unlike CFLs, the title for original inventor of the LED appears to be hotly contested, though Oleg Vladimirovich Losev seems like a pretty good bet. The Russian scientist wrote 16 papers on LED technology between 1924 and 1930 and was granted a patent for his LED-based ‘Light Relay’ in 1929.

In spite of Losev’s efforts, constraints (namely price) have until recently seen LED lighting relegated to the shadows. But with energy efficiency climbing higher on the agenda of households and businesses, and with white LED lamps carrying the capacity to operate for an extremely impressive 100,000 hours and losing only 20 percent heat—compared with 80 percent lost by incandescent light bulbs—the benefits really start to shine through.

While CFLs and incandescent lightbulbs have succeeded in the basic function of producing light, LED provides another benefit that is of particular appeal in the architectural space. When red, green and blue LEDs are combined into one LED device, like a light fixture, millions of colours can be produced. Globally, LED lighting has been used to light a number of architectural icons, from the LG Twin Towers in China to the Cishan Bridge in Taiwan.

If you have been fortunate enough to be in New York over the New Year, you might have seen the Times Square Ball drop. The famed ball (pictured) was actually converted from incandescent light to LED technology by Philips. The conversion resulted in energy savings of 20 percent. But to the naked eye, the most impressive part of the technology is its ability to precisely control the lighting of the ball, creating some stunning visual effects.

But you don’t have to travel that far to appreciate LED’s growing role in architecture. Locally, there are some notable buildings using coloured LED. As part of its 80th birthday celebrations, the Auckland War Memorial Museum used LED technology to light its neoclassical facade and columns. The technology allows the museum to change its look and feel with the touch of a button.

Also in Auckland, the Newmarket train station received the LED treatment to light its three-storey lantern-box structure at the front entrance. Featuring strands of 50 individual LED nodes that span the glazed panels, the lights have the potential to sit pretty for close to 17 years, based on eight hours’ use per day. And that is another big selling point for LED: the associated longevity of the lights means maintenance time and costs are greatly reduced.

In Christchurch, the International Airport Tower (below) used Philips LED technology to gain low-cost lighting while meeting its operational and safety requirements. While visually impressive, the lighting is also programmable to function only when the airport is operating at night and is estimated to provide 50,000 hours of lighting.

In 2011, the overall lighting market looks poised to be a lucrative one, according to Rick Hamburger, director of segment marketing at Philips. Hamburger estimates the 2011 market size for outdoor lighting is valued at NZ$1.7 billion. For shops and hospitality, it’s NZ$1.3 billion. Office lighting is worth $NZ1 billion, meanwhile the retrofit segment takes the lion’s share of the market, valued at $NZ2.5 billion for 2011. That’s a lot of market potential for LED to tap into. 

Deirdre Robert visited the Philips Lighting Lumileds factory and the Philips Color Kinetics showroom in the US in January this year