LEDs: The Bright Bulb Revolution

led lightbulb philips


The soft glow of a burning-hot wire in an incandescent lightbulb, and the bluish tinge from the screaming electrical plasma storm in a fluorescent tube may soon become largely things of the past. LED lighting has arrived to beat them both.

Ever since British inventor Humphry Davy passed current through a platinum strip in 1802, electrical lighting based on incandescent technology in vacuum-sealed glass bulbs has lighted up our lives. Edison didn’t invent the things, despite what you may have heard, but he did perfect an early design that made the lightbulb a practical commodity. Since Edison’s experiments, the tech has been tweaked and polished, to the point that we’re no longer amazed by the instant availability of electrical light, seeing it as merely “normal.”

And don’t forget fluorescent systems either–decades of effort by Brits, Germans, French and Americans starting in the mid-1800’s resulted in those long tubes lighting up practically every office space everywhere, as well as the curling glass tubes that glow over the door of your favorite diner. As concerns about the environmental impact of incandescent bulbs grew, compact plug-in fluorescent (CFL) tech even seemed briefly like it could be the future of lighting.

And all of these innovations will remain with us for some time–the differing benefits of the technologies will mean they retain a grip on niche markets in the lighting industry (in stage lighting, and sign writing for example). But for mainstream lighting, the CFL and the hot lightbulb are doomed. Doomed faster than you may imagine, actually–thanks to the LED.

At the Light+Building trade show in Frankfurt last month, this quiet revolution in lighting technology couldn’t be more blindingly obvious. Where events like this had remained pretty stagnant and uninteresting for years, L+B was filled with drama. Seemingly every company’s exhibition stand was featuring LED technology with jazzy demos and snazzy music and, yes, pretty young female stand promotional teams (LED Ladies?). The stand for Royal Philips Electronics more than every other: The company had taken the bold step to light the entire sweeping exhibition hall with LED tech, and the only lighting gear made by the company (which started out as an early pioneer in incandescent bulbs) that was being promoted was LED-based from consumer practical and “fun” lighting to LED street lamps that could save authorities millions of dollars in energy bills.

led streetlight

The CEO of Philips Lighting, Rudy Provost, explained why at the beginning of his press conference: “This Light + Building is not about 2010 – it is about a new decade, a new era of growth, powered by innovation. A decade of opportunity, driven by a fundamental transformation of our industry.” Explaining more to us, Provost noted that LED’s are just a “means to an end” for delivering new lighting systems to people, while acknowledging that the arrival of the small, white, super-efficient LEDs has completely turned the industry on its head–“A few years ago we would call ourselves a ballast and bulb company, and today we’re talking about being a lighting solutions company … but of course LED allows you to do things you couldn’t do before.”


While 90% of Philip’s Lighting business revenues came from non-LED sources in Q4 of 2009, Provost noted he’s certain that LED tech is the future, and that he’s trying to “accelerate” the change inside the company. “We’ve articulated very well what […] the dream is, we know where we are today, [and the] breakthrough is having plotted the migration path” towards a future of the industry where LED is the big business. Today’s announcement of the 12W EnduraLED bulb, a replacement for the standard consumer 60W unit is a very definite step in this direction.

Across the hall in the L+B trade show, one of lighting’s biggest names, Osram, was also promoting its LED lighting solutions, from consumer-scale systems to LED video walls. An Osram spokesman was candid about the revolution going on, and noted that “Five years ago you’d only see one or two LED systems” while this year the entire show was about LED-powered lighting solutions.

But why is there such excitement about white and colored LEDs and OLEDs? It’s for two main reasons. The rapidly advancing technology is around 80% more efficient than incandescent systems, meaning it saves power and thus money. But more importantly it’s because the physical nature of LED lighting (the little diodes in standard LEDs and the plates of glowing light of almost any shape in OLEDs) combined with the digital control that makes them tick allows for totally innovative implementations. An LED light bulb, with the right chipsets in its base, could even communicate wirelessly with smartMeters in the home, and it certainly allows you to program–and remotely control–lighting “states” for your house as if you were a theater lighting technician lighting a stage play. This has other advantages too–Philips’ Rudy Provost also noted that there are whole new business models arriving thanks to this. “We have now cities coming to us and saying, ‘We want to outsource our lighting management, can you do it for us?’ Airports who come to us and say, ‘We want to outsource our energy management.'” This outsourced efficiency, timing, and bulb-replacement management is only possible due to the digital tech behind LED lights, combined with modern networking solutions.

LED units

Hence you have manufacturing giants like Philips and Osram quickly re-directing their century-old businesses toward these new lighting devices. They’d better move swiftly though: Advances in white and colored LED tech are incredibly swift, and putting together enough components into an LED “bulb” is technologically pretty simple. And at the other end of L+B, hundreds of small Chinese, Korean, and Japanese companies were showcasing their own LED bulb solutions, with everything from streetlights to lightstrings to office area lights all on display and ready for bulk purchase. Sure, the quality of white light from these may not have the same warm, natural glow as Philips is aiming for…but they’re already available to buy.


At the end of the day, that old $0.60 light bulb hanging over your desk is probably doomed, for all the right environmental and economic reasons. The quiet, bright white LED bulb revolution is already overtaking the lighting industry, and is poised to be big news in the consumer world. Then the next challenge facing companies like Philips is to change consumer’s minds about lighting–and get them to imagine it as much more than a way to see in the dark, but as a means of changing the lightscapes of their homes and workplaces.


Exploding bulb image: Flickr user Laszlo-photo

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)