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Cheap LED Lighting Races Ahead with OSRAM Breakthrough

OSRAM builds cheap LEDs on siliconInternational lighting industry giant OSRAM has just announced a research breakthrough that will make the cost of high-efficiency LED light bulbs sink like a stone. Considering the volume of hay that certain politicians have made this year fighting against LEDs and other new technologies, that should cause more than a few faces  to start glowing beet red. After all, who could be against a simple, easy-to-install household device that saves money every time you flip a switch? While OSRAM’s new LEDs still might not become quite cheap as conventional incandescent bulbs, this new generation of cheaper LEDs will make it that much easier for the mass market to swing away from energy-wasting bulbs, since the payback period will be far shorter than it is today.

Silicon is the Secret to Cheaper LEDs

One reason that high-performance LEDs are relatively expensive now is because they are typically made by layering various compounds onto a sapphire substrate. OSRAM substituted a far cheaper (to say nothing of ubiquitous) substrate, silicon. That sounds simple enough but the challenge is to maintain a high level of performance and durability while using cheaper materials. So far, things are looking good: the research is still in the pilot stage, but the company is so confident that it is already predicting success. The next step is a series of tests in real-world conditions, with a market-ready product available in about two years.

More Low-Cost LEDs on the Horizon

If it seems that OSRAM is racing to get ahead of the competition for the mass market lighting tech of the future, that’s because there is competition.  The company Lighting Science Group, for example, is also working on new low-cost LED technology that could retail for far less than is typical now, and Philips has already launched a new high-efficiency lightbulb that looks and acts just like the old ones. The pursuit of the consumer market in the U.S. and other developed countries is prize enough, but cheaper high-efficiency bulbs could also find a huge market in the developing world, where households are beginning to adopt mini-solar kits and other low cost alternative energy technologies that enable them to use more electrical appliances.

Light Bulb War Could Heat Up This Fall

The scramble to bring better lighting technology to market in the U.S. is mainly due to four-year-old Federal legislation that phased in new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs starting this January 1. That timetable is still law, but House Republicans pretty much guaranteed that the debate over new lighting technology will revive in time to become a hot election issue this fall, because they pushed through legislation that delays funding for enforcement until September 30.

Or, Light Bulb War Could Fizzle

Given the rapid pace at which the lighting industry is making better, cheaper stuff available to consumers, that legislative maneuver could easily fall into the “be careful what you wish for” category. For its part, the lighting industry has already asserted that it will stick with the mandatory timetable whether or not enforcement funding is allocated, and major lighting retailers like IKEA are already transitioning. That leaves anti-tech politicians and pundits trying to argue – right in the hotspot of an election season marked by household economic issues – that consumers are better served by a return to old policies that stick them with 130-year-old lighting technology which costs them more money every time they turn on the lights.

Image: OSRAM LED in red, orange and yellow, courtesy of OSRAM.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

 
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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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