Tiny LEDs to Light the Way of the Future?

"They're extremely durable," says Miller. "We've taken finished [Luxeon] light modules and swung them around on 12-inch cables and slammed them to the ground, and the bulbs remain [intact]."

As such, Miller says he expects to use the LED technology to produce rugged, powerful lights for outdoor enthusiasts. One of the next projects his company is working on is brighter and smaller headlights that can be mounted on a bicycle or a cyclist's helmet.

Some Dark Spots

But still, it could be quite a while before LEDs like Luxeon permanently punch out traditional bulbs.

For one, LED light sources may be more efficient than conventional light bulbs, but not as effective as other energy-efficient light technologies such as fluorescent light fixtures.

"An incandescent bulb gives about 17 lumens per watt," says Strategies Unlimited's Steele. "The best LEDs are 25 and fluorescents are about 80. That's why a lot of the lighting in the world is fluorescent."

And then there is a matter of cost.

For now, LEDs such as Luxeon are about 10 times more expensive than traditional bulbs. As such, most bright LEDs are used in only a few limited instances — such as in traffic lights — where cost and benefits can be easily and quickly seen.

"A red traffic light is a 140- or 150-watt bulb that costs a couple of dollars and a LED signal light is about $60 or $70," says Steele. "But just the cost of sending a guy out on a lift [to replace a bulb] costs the same as a new LED signal."

Funding Further Developments

Still, Steele and others in the lighting industry are confident that LEDs could soon be lighting our future. Steele notes, for example, that almost every single lighting company has an LED development project in the works.

What's more, government energy-efficiency programs could help spur further research. Japan, for example, has a "Light for the 21st Century" project that seeks to produce more cost-effective illumination devices.

The United States is considering a similar program as part of an overall energy bill still being debated in Congress. If the "Next-Generation Lighting Initiative" survives, up to $480 million in research funds could be made available over the next decade.

"Ten years down the road, you will be able to buy a light fixture and never have to replace the bulb. You just replace the entire fixture when you're tired of it," says Steele. "That's what LED technology is all about."

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