Dorks for LEDs, Unite! 5 Reasons Why the 2014 Nobel Physics Prize is Right On

October 7, 2014 | 2:36 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Great news from Stockholm this morning: the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded for an invention that made white LEDs possible. In talking about this story today, NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel said he’s “kind of a dork for LED lighting,” and I’ll readily admit I’m one. Here are five reasons why you might want to be one, too.

Credit: Mike Jacobs

Stylish, durable, and efficient, too. And good for your wallet. Credit: Mike Jacobs

The Royal Swedish Academy announced today that three scientists, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura, had been awarded the physics prize for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

LEDs have been available for decades in red, yellow, and green. But the emergence of white LEDs depended on the magic from the brains and hands of Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura. The white light can come from having blue LEDs coated with a yellow phosphorescent coating (see our handy recent member magazine piece on how LEDs work for more).

Bright lights

Here are five reasons why the Nobel committee is right to shine a bright light (so to speak) on LEDs:

  1. High efficiency – This is a big one with LEDs, and LEDs’ advantages keep getting better. The Nobel announcement reported that the latest record for LED efficiency is more than 300 lumens per watt—four times the efficiency of fluorescent lamps and almost 19 times that of regular old incandescent bulbs.
  2. Beautiful light – Fast-starting, bright, and available in a whole range of “temperatures” for any tastes. From cool (bluish) to warm (yellowish), LEDs have it all. And many of them work great with dimmer switches.
  3. Great longevity – Like a certain bunny, LEDs just keep goin’, and goin’. They can last 25,000 to 100,000 hours, vs. 10,000 for a fluorescent and 1,000 for an incandescent. That means that the LED bulbs I put in this year could still be raring to go when my young kids visit with their kids and grandkids (though I can’t guarantee I’ll be quite as raring to go). They also don’t mind being turned on and off, unlike other lights, which makes them a great choice for lots of applications.
  4. Improved safety – The higher efficiencies of white LEDs mean they don’t run nearly as hot, which is a plus for those with small kids or anything flammable, anywhere. And they’re hardy, which means less risk of broken glass from broken bulbs.
  5. Money! – LEDs are still a lot more expensive than other options, but with their costs dropping so quickly, the numbers are already looking great. The Department of Energy figures that replacing a 60-watt incandescent with an LED could save you $4 per year if you use it for two hours a day (and pay the average electricity rate, which many of us don’t).
from "How it Works: LED Lightbulbs," UCS Catalyst

from “How it Works: LED Lightbulbs,” UCS Catalyst

What all that means is that by putting in LEDs in places where bulbs get even more use—and maybe in fixtures that are hard to get to, so the longevity can be an added benefit, or that are tippy, so the durability can serve well—your payback could be as little as a year or two. That’s a fine return on investment.

Why it matters

The Nobel has wisely recognized an invention that is far-reaching and incredibly important. Lighting accounts for about a quarter of the world’s electricity, and 10-15% of a typical U.S. household’s electricity use. In our book Cooler Smarter we identified lighting as low-hanging fruit for cutting expenses and cutting your carbon.

The invention behind the Nobel has also found its way into flashlights (bright + high efficiency = a lot fewer batteries), consumer electronics (think LED TVs), and smartphones the world around.

The Nobel committee also noted the importance of the invention for the 1.5 billion people who don’t have access to electricity. The high efficiency makes LEDs a great match for small-scale solar power systems.

After professing his dorkiness, Geoff Brumfiel went on: “I’ve got to say that they’re just awesome.” And I’ve just got to say I am so with him on that.

Dorks for LEDs, unite! And celebrate.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.