I know you’ve seen them somewhere because this technology has been emerging around us for about 40 years now. You probably noticed them first on the face of your watch, or perhaps your alarm clock or stereo. Now they have found their way into hazard markers, flashlights, Christmas tree lights, signage, and an ever-widening array of other applications. It may take another ten years or more, but at some point in the not-too-distant future they will result in the obsolescence of the incandescent lightbulb, a relatively inefficient technology that has remained virtually unchanged since first introduced over 100 years ago.
Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are semiconductor devices containing a chemical compound that gives off light when an electrical current is passed through it. The problem with incandescent bulbs is that they are better at producing heat than light. LEDs overcome this design flaw. Hewlett-Packard first developed them in the 1960’s but they’ve come a long way since the days where their most common use was to light the face of your watch at night. It took until the 90’s for scientists to figure out how to create a ‘white’ light most suitable for general illumination and with this obstacle overcome, the game is really on. Advancing technology means that every 1½ years the cost of LEDs is halved while their efficiency doubles. They now use 90% less energy than a normal light bulb and will last many times longer. In fact, it is possible for a single diode consuming 1/10th of a watt of electricity to produce sufficient light to read by.
The benefits of this technology should be truly revolutionary. For instance, the miniscule power requirements of LEDs makes them an excellent partner with solar power. If you are one of the billions of inhabitants of this planet that is not plugged into the electric grid, how life-changing would it be if you found your bedside, or room, or house, or village lit for the first time? Mind-boggling. Perhaps even more significant, it’s estimated that lighting consumes approximately 25% of the world’s electricity supply, so a 90% improvement in energy efficiency would translate into a reduction of more than 20% in the global consumption of electricity. How in tune is that with the Kyoto disAccord?
As you might expect, the big boys are all over this one. Partnerships have been formed between Phillips and Agilent, General Electric and Emcore, and Siemens and Sylvania. I’m currently following three smaller companies that are leaders in either developing or applying LED technology, two of them based right here in British Columbia. I covered Carmanah Technologies (CMH-V) of Victoria in the September issue of The Island Word, this home grown developer of solar-powered hazard marker and transit shelter illumination has seen it’s stock price double in the last six months, and with their 2003 earnings due out shortly, it will be interesting to see if the company’s revenue growth can be sustained. Here is a short profile of the other two companies I’m watching with particular interest.