GE engineer, inventor and physicist Gary Allen has spent the last 25 years blazing a trail to a better light. He says that we are on the cusp of a lighting revolution that will lead to nearly perfect illumination. “Lighting is becoming almost everything we ever wanted it to be, and even things we never imagined,” Allen says.
Allen recently talked about his quest at a TED event in Cleveland, Ohio. “If you had a nearly ideal light source what would you do with it?” he asked the audience. “It would have long life, be vanishingly small, [have] high-precision, high-efficiency, great color, controllable, smart, and connected.”
That light source is the LED, invented 50 years ago by a former colleague Nick Holonyak. LEDs are bits of special semiconductors that convert as much as a third of the electricity that flows through them directly to light. After a flickering start, the use LED systems in commercial lighting applications has exploded over the last decade. Grocery cases, commercial ceilings, business signs, parking lots and roadways all use LEDs, and LED lights are now moving into the home. Commercial and consumer LED lighting could reach 60 percent of all sales by the end of the decade, according to some estimates. “In five years, the cost of LED light bulbs should not be a concern for most consumers,” Allen says. “They’ll get a nearly perfect light bulb at an affordable price, and each one will save them $100 or more.”
LEDs are so efficient because of the way they convert electricity into light. Thomas Edison’s breakthrough 1879 light bulb could only convert about one percent of electricity into light and wasted the rest as heat. If you’ve recently tried to touch a lit old-fashioned light bulb with bare hands, you know that things have not improved much over the last 130 years. Allen said that by 2030, advanced LEDs would be able to convert up to 80 percent of electricity that courses through them directly into light.
Allen started his career by working on nuclear fusion, but moved into lighting with the hope of making a more near-term difference to the world. “I wanted to see my work have a more direct impact in my lifetime,” he said. “Having worked in lighting, we’ve had an immediate and significant impact on global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s been very satisfying to me.”