How Many PhDs does it take to Change an LED?

Recently, the MIT Club of Northern California Cleantech Series presented “The Coming Ramp of Solid State Lighting,” a panel discussion held at Applied Materials' offices in California.

Panelists included representatives from Pacific Gas and Electric Company's (PG&E) emerging technologies division, CEOs from two promising start-ups — Exclara and Luxim Corporation, the vice president of Strategy and Marketing form Philips Lumileds and Annette Finsterbusch of Applied Ventures, LLP.

Moderator, Adam Brand, representing the MIT Club, set the stage when he acknowledged, “25% of the electrical power consumed in the United States goes to lighting — lighting that has already been targeted for power savings in many countries.” Citing the U.S. 2007 Energy Independence Act which mandates a 30% reduction in energy consumption, Brand launched the panel into a lively discussion about the future of solid state lighting (SSL).

Thor Scordelis, from PG&E, updated the crowd on policies being enacted to accelerate adoption of advanced lighting technologies. Policies like the recent California Public Utilities Commission Draft “Proposed Decision” for Funding of Investor Owned Utilities (IOU) Energy Efficiency Programs, which aims to shift funding to advance lighting technologies vs. existing basic CFL (compact florescent light) programs. From 2006 to 2008, using funding from this program, PG&E completed over 17 lighting technology assessments, 30% of which were LED (light emitting diode) projects. Some of these assessments can be found on the Emerging Technologies Coordinating Council's web site. Given PG&E’s key role in the roll-out of CFL’s, it seems likely PG&E will be instrumental in encouraging California to adopt advanced lighting technologies.

And boy, some of those technologies are really neat. Check out Luxim’s tiny capsule that emits a near blinding amount of light. Using proprietary plasma lamp technology, Luxim’s LIFI product combines the best aspects of high intensity discharge (HID) and conventional SSL.


 Cool but costly…..

Although there’s definitely a relatively high ‘cool’ factor when it comes to novel solid state lighting, the price points for mass consumer adoption are still not there. For example, on Home Depot’s web site, one can buy a Sylvania 1.5 Watt LED white light bulb which lasts 25 kilowatt hours for $11.97, whereas for the same amount, one can buy two  4-packs of N:vision’s 14 Watt soft white CFL bulbs. By the way, this N:vision CFL is Home Depot’s most popular online product. Going to the store, picking up a few light bulbs, and finding yourself spending more than $50 is not something most Americans are willing to do.

That’s why startups like Luxim are focusing on the commercial lighting markets, or as in Exclara’s case, the Chinese government. Exclara is a fabless semiconductor company that has developed proprietary digital power management platforms specifically tailored to SSL solutions.

So how many PhD’s does it take to change an LED?

Although LEDs are just as bright as or brighter than light bulbs they are still complex. According to Exclara CEO, Tom Riordan, in addition to the complexities of handling the input power to make LEDs work; people often forget that building facilities managers will have to re-learn how to deal with the upkeep and maintenance of something that is no longer as simple as a common light bulb. In terms of the cost side, as Philips Lumiled's Vice President of Segment and Strategic Marketing, Danny Yu pointed out, the only way to eventually achieve cost parity with light bulbs is to apply semiconductor manufacturing techniques to LED manufacturing. So in the end, it probably will take a lot of PhD's to change a LED.

Applied Ventures Invests in New Lighting Technologies

Applied Materials is actively funding the development of new lighting technologies through its venture finance group, Applied Ventures LLP. Annette Finsterbusch, director for Applied Ventures has drove investments in high brightness LED companies, Illumitex and silicon-based solid-state light emitter company, Group IV Semiconductor.

But more important than investing, Annette practices what she invests in…the entry path to her house is beautifully illuminated by LEDs. Way to go Annette for supporting the cause. All of us should follow in her path.

The panel concluded that indeed the future is bright (lit by advanced lighting, of course) and that as innovative technologies and large scale manufacturing techniques are applied price points for LED lighting will come down, mass adoption can occur, and perhaps more interestingly, lighting will cease to be as we know it is today. And, much like we change clothing and colors to match the seasons and current fashion styles, perhaps we will be able to do the same with our lighting!

All-in-all, not only did the attendees become enlightened about the future of LEDs, the event, with over 120 attendees,  also raised more than $2,500 for scholarships for MIT students!

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