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Energy & Sustainability

Weekly Trend: How the Blue LED Will Spark Technological Transformations in the 21st Century

The Royal Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced last month that the Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded to three physicists who revolutionized the way we illuminate spaces. Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura will be honored for their collective efforts to develop the blue LED, or light emitting diode, in the early 1990s. Unlike the red and green LEDs, the blue LED has the potential to change the world by providing a cheap and energy efficient white light source.

The committee that selected these physicists for the prize believes that while incandescent light bulbs were the main lighting source of the previous century, LED lights will illuminate the 21st century. This endorsement alone is a big pat on the back for these innovators—but what does their invention of the blue LED mean for people in the United States and abroad? Why is this creation significant and worthy of such prestigious recognition?

For starters, this technology is transformative because of its environmentally friendly and long-lasting nature. Cheap solar panels are able to generate enough energy to power LEDs. Running on solar power alone, these lights can last up to 100,000 hours, drastically outperforming their incandescent and compact-florescent predecessors.

To understand the LED’s true significance, though, start by looking in your back pocket for the answer. Light emitting diodes are already used in smart phones, as well as in your television, computer and car. However, the future uses of LED lighting are even brighter.

In the developed world, LEDs have become pervasive in street lighting, dramatically changing the urban landscape. These energy-efficient lights are replacing inefficient traditional street lamps and simultaneously providing innovators with new opportunities to reduce light pollution. With about 40 percent of the average city’s electricity bill going toward street lighting—half of which is wasted—the invention of blue LED and mechanisms to customize lighting in urban environments have the potential to make a sizable impact on a city’s energy consumption.

For example, Denmark is now developing a bed of street lighting in a suburb of Copenhagen that features LED lighting. These lights are paired with sensors and mechanisms that can increase and decrease the light emitted from each lamp given the presence of a car or pedestrian. While they are more expensive upfront, LEDs have the potential to curb energy costs as well as carbon footprints of businesses and cities alike.

As a result, startups and innovators are taking note of the opportunities associated with energy efficient lighting and the potential to make meaningful changes to cities and communities near and far.

For example, Digital Lumens is pairing the energy-efficient technology of LEDs with networking technology in order to create a more intelligent lighting system. This type of technology not only cuts costs of energy for customers but also minimizes negative environmental impacts. ByteLight, another Boston-based startup, utilizes LED technology to revolutionize the way we shop while Soraa, founded by Nobel laureate Nakamura, utilizes the blue LED to create and sell “world-record-setting” energy efficient lamps.

While the aforementioned companies focus on improvements in urban environments in the developed world there are also ample opportunities for LED technology to impact communities in the developing world.

LED lighting has the potential to bring light to 1.5 billion people around the world who currently lack access to power grids and rely on unsustainable sources of light after the sun sets. Providing these people with solar powered LEDs could have a plethora of positive effects for individuals and societies in developing worlds, including increased safety, the ability to engage in any activity that requires light after the sun sets and connecting previously disengaged people to the digital world.

At home and abroad, LED technology is going to drastically change the world. Entrepreneurs working to utilize LED and combine them with other technologies and mechanisms have the potential to make positive transformations to the developed and developing world. The announcement of the Nobel Prize winners is a reminder that the way we light the world is undergoing revolutionary changes that will undoubtedly spark more innovation across all industries.

Carolyn Peyser

Carolyn is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Sociology and minoring in Communications and Media Studies.