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Vacuum tubes to nanotubes, who will lead?

Thomas Edison joined the IES in T 1907. Industry leaders grappled with new technologies as flames were replaced by vacuum tubes. Those ascending to power over this decade will guide the shift from vacuum tubes to nanotubes and beyond.


Entrenched industries and large conglomerates often resist change and impede progress. Edison battled the gas companies who saw electric lights as competition. AT&T fought anything that competed with their existing systems, refusing to allow competing devices to connect to their lines until a court order forced them to do so. I grew up in Detroit where auto companies attacked new forms of mass transit because it made their products unnecessary. Fossil fuel firms promote alternative energy in marketing spin but fund disinformation on climate change.

These painfully slow transitions emerge from necessity not proactive strategy. The four largest lighting companies in North America control 55 percent of the market share. They are often accused of being slow to change, partially for the same reason that it takes time to turn a big ship, not from ill intent. They are all reinventing themselves into energy solutions providers of optoelectronic and semiconductor products. They are facing aggressive competition from previously peripheral or unrelated companies. The sense of urgency demands that no time be wasted fighting the momentum of the LED revolution. We quickly become experts, align with experts or face rapid demise. Resistance is futile.

Unlike what faced AT&T, auto companies and the fossil fuel suppliers, our disruptive technology promises significant revenue incentive as a benefit from rapid transition. Due to the sense of urgency, increased competition and potential for high profits, there not only is no intentional blockage of LEDs but the large lighting companies are driving forward at a pace that may prove to be an unsafe speed. Expensive warranty claims, damaged credibility and disgruntled agents all result from rushing new technology to market.

Our challenge is whether we can own relevant new technologies with authority before peripheral industries suck the cream off the top, relegating the rest of us to bottom feeders. What is the timeframe of this transition? GE claims they will be 75 percent LED in the next 10 years (noting they are less than 10 percent now). Philips has projected a tenfold increase in global LED sales by 2015 (from about 1.5 billion Euros in 2010).

There is only one group charged with reporting annually on advancements to the art and science of lighting. It is the IES Progress Committee. Their numbers reveal the pace of the transformation: 44 percent of the acceptances into their 2010 report were solid-state lighting related; 33 percent were controls; and 21 percent were retrofit oriented. Some of the controls and retrofit products were SSL technology. The LED train is seemingly unstoppable. Today's leaders will have to sift through the overstated LED claims and focus on the applications and products that actually benefit from this source. Reality will rule and the momentum will slow. Signs are already visible: Just as many people still prefer incandescent sources to fluorescent, and early indicators are that LEDs face similar levels of rejection.



Performance does not equal the hype. The October DOE Caliper report revealed that the average white LED luminaire tested produces about 50 lumens per watt. While in some applications LEDs can be more effective, though less efficient than fluorescent and metal halide, the efficacy is below consumer expectations. Based on low efficacy and high fixture costs, there is a slow return on investment. LED growth may also be affected by research into photobiology and toxicity. Last October, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) recommended, "avoiding the use of light sources emitting cold white light (light with a strong blue component) in places frequented by children." Architectural LEDs tend toward cooler correlated color temperatures having a strong blue component, especially in exterior applications. The report specifically addresses LED health concerns and, with qualifiers, recommends limiting LED sales, regulating installation and encourages manufacturers to design fixtures "in which beams of light emitted by LEDs cannot be seen directly."

Earlier this year researchers from University of California-Irvine's School of Social Ecology and Program in Public Health analyzed red, yellow, green and blue LEDs in low and high intensities. They chose lights that would commonly be found on the typical Christmas tree and then ground up the contents of each bulb in order to analyze the different substances, specifically a wide range of heavy metals. In the LEDs, the researchers found toxic chemicals including antimony, arsenic, chromium and lead, as well as numerous other metals. In the low intensity red LEDs, researchers found the lead content was over eight times the regulatory limit and the nickel content was approximately two and a half times over the limit. Under environmental regulations in the State of California, most LEDs would be classified as hazardous waste. Damaged LEDs could pose health risks to those handling them and having direct contact with the toxic substances. These negatives can ultimately be addressed but will influence the unchallenged acceptance LED sources have enjoyed.


Other new lighting technologies will gain momentum when our vision clears and reality sets in for the LED revolution. The OLED appears doomed as a general light source, due to the high cost, limited availability and lack of alternatives to indium. Indium tin oxide is a transparent (in thin layers) conductive coating used in OLEDs, LCDs, plasma displays, touch panels and electronic ink as well as some thin film solar cells. According to last October's issue of Scientific American, "At current production levels, known indium reserves contain an 18-year world supply." There are prospective replacements including carbon nanotube coatings but none has proven to be as effective. There is promising research on "aromatic carbonyls," a pure-organic phosphorescent replacement, at the University of Michigan. Optimistic lighting and television manufacturers continue to introduce new OLED offerings. Apple recently filed three OLED display related patents.

OLEDs have multiple competing technologies challenging them. The organic light-emitting transistor (OLET) is claimed to be 100 times more efficient at converting electricity into light that OLEDs. The OLET was developed at the Italian National Research Agency and announced in May 2010. It combines the switching mechanism of a thin-film transistor and an electroluminescent device. Carbon nanotubes were found in 2004 to emit photons of light but more recent research has focused on other uses. MIT was able to use carbon nanotubes to concentrate light by about 100 times and funnel photons into smaller (less expensive) solar panels.

A team of Swedish and American researchers has created an organic light-emitting electrochemical cell (LEC) with no metal having carbon-based electrodes made from graphene. This lighting system is created entirely from liquid solutions so it can be produced through an inexpensive printing process. Graphene is a one atom thick clear carbon material that is 100 times stronger than steel. A meter sq sheet would support a 9.2-pound cat and weigh less than one whisker on the cat. It is the basic structural element of carbon nanotubes. LECs are positioned as a replacement for OLEDs with the advantages of significantly lower cost and being fully recyclable. The electronic and optical performance of devices based on graphene is similar to those using indium-tin-oxide but marketable LEC fixtures are years away.


If you are getting the feeling that this is not your father's lighting industry, read on as it only gets more evident. Gordon Moore was a co-founder of Intel. In 1965 he stated that the quantity of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled about every two years. This trend has continued for more than half a century and is still predicted throughout this decade. If you think electronics are pervasive now, imagine the impact of research reported in June 2010 on quantum optics that revealed that a single atom can be a transistor for light. This means more transistors than Moore imagined possible. A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify and switch signals. The quantity of transistors relates directly to processing power and miniaturization. The ability to integrate electronics just took a quantum leap. In fact, quantum computers may result from this breakthrough.

Many scientists are discussing the Singularity, a point in time when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence. This would require significantly increased processing speed with most projections ranging from 2019 to 2040. AI may control all of our appliances including the lighting in a space adjusting not just to user patterns as we can do now. AI could automatically react to demand response, offer dynamic intensity and color tuning for photobiological benefits, provide seamless daylight integration, select individual user preferences and much more. The ability of AI to not only be a supercharged database (like the Watson computer recently on Jeopardy) but to reason and repair or replicate itself has consequences well beyond our industry. Integrating AI into our products makes our LED learning curve seem small by comparison.

Quantum computers are necessary for teleportation for objects (beyond the information that can be teleported now), which also involves light. Entangled photons are dependant on the state of each other and when one is sent a distance away and measured it causes the other to change allowing the teleportation of quantum information (but only atoms of matter so far). This potential for quantum-state generation and manipulation may allow time-dependant transfers between light and matter.

Who will lead lighting into this incredible future? Where are our Thomas Edisons? The skill set that got us here is not what it will take to move us forward. It is not just the products that are changing, it is the information required to understand, produce and apply the new sources and fixtures resulting from the radically different direction we are speeding toward. Many fear change and will fall behind. The IES mission to improve the quality of the lighted environment will become increasingly difficult as we move from mature, predictable sources into the new frontier. Leaders will need to understand how to integrate these technologies without compromising lighting quality. They will need to take risks, as new sources prove worthy.

It is an exciting time, rich with opportunity for lighting inventors, designers, researchers, CEOs and anyone who can help navigate. Last December this magazine featured an encouraging "Faces of the Future" issue profiling 25 "of the future thought leaders of the industry." They look confident and determined but they will need support, encouragement and mentoring to face the daunting challenge of quickly transforming our industry. I even noticed a few "bring it on" expressions that reminded me of a young Thomas Edison.

Mark Lien, LC, LEED AP, is director of the Lighting Solutions Center for Hubbell Lighting and a member of the IES Board of Directors.
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Title Annotation:FORCES OF CHANGE
Author:Lien, Mark
Publication:LD+A Magazine
Date:May 1, 2011
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