LED Costs Cut 75% with Silicon Breakthrough by California Startup Bridgelux

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While LEDs are by far the most energy-efficient (and thus, the cheapest) lighting over the long run, in the short term, they can be a hefty hit to the wallet. But a breakthrough in pricing may change that upfront expense.

Kim Eaton at Fast Company is reporting that the rapidly expanding Bay Area start-up Bridgelux has made a breakthrough in developing a way of making LEDs using silicon wafers instead of using wafers made with a layer of sapphire (yes, that priceless gem).

Even though the sapphire is artificially grown, it is still an extremely expensive procedure . Compared with the old way, using silicon instead of artificial sapphire is much cheaper, and getting cheaper still as solar panel production has skyrocketed over the last few years.

After it ramps up production, within just two to three years, costs for its LED could drop by at least 75%, the company says, while not impacting the incredible efficiency and longevity associated with LEDs.

By January 2012, lighting manufacturers selling in the US must increase the efficiency of  any lightbulbs by 30% over that of traditional incandescent light bulbs (of 100 watts or more) to meet the Energy Independence and Security Act passed in 2007. By 2014, it includes bulbs of 40 watts and above. Most other nations have passed laws phasing out incandescents now, driving innovation globally.

The US law is not specific to incandescent lights, merely requiring that lights be efficient. But all lights except incandescents already meet that efficiency standard. CFLs are already 75% more efficient than the traditional bulbs, and LEDs are 90% more efficient.

Initially, GE initially attempted to develop a 30% more efficient incandescent, but a year later scrapped that and moved on to create a halogen substitute that is 30% more efficient, as it turned out to be easier to improve the efficiency of halogen lights to the point where they could meet the mandate.

When first developed, incandescent bulbs were an improvement over candle light, whale oil light, or gas lamps, and for a lower cost, so that the transition was naturally driven by market economics. But LEDs and CFLs are not such an easy switch. Even though they cost far less over time in energy costs, they cost more initially, so there is no market force forcing the switch.

Saving more over time is not an easy sell, as I found from my days in solar sales, (where the savings can easily add up to enough money to buy another house every 20 years) so I have a very visceral sense of how little the market responds to long term benefits. Most people are just unmotivated by the future, regardless. So the market would not have demanded increased efficiency, even though needlessly burning fossil fuels is already beginning to drive some catastrophic climate changes.

Because people are so easily lured into staying with what seems cheaper upfront –  even if the long term costs are literally at the scale of destroying an entire 10,000 year old civilization within just a few more centuries – this law makes sense. In the four years since the enactment, lighting has vastly improved efficiency. This milestone from Bridgelux is an example.

Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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