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LEDs Light the Future

Roll over, Tom Edison. Drawing on new semiconductor technology, muscular offshoots of those dainty colored dots could shine bright white light that illuminates the world.
September 1, 2000

A riot of light assaults a visitor walking into the lobby of Color Kinetics on the 17th floor of a downtown Boston office building. Swirled designs on posters change from orange to green, clear plastic shapes glow blue, purple and red in quick succession. And a question soon arises: What color is that couch? It shines cherry red, fades to crimson, turns baby blue, then begins the cycle again.

In fact, the couch is red. It’s always red, and only the light shining on it from dozens of tiny spotlights changes, as Color Kinetics demonstrates the effects possible with its digital lights. Each little lamp contains red, green and blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which light up in varying combinations under computer control. “We’re revolutionizing the lighting industry with what we consider a disruptive technology,” enthuses company president George Mueller, tall and ponytailed with the Gen-X standard goatee. “It’s a new way to create light.”

Mueller and his co-founder, Ihor Lys, have married computer software to a decade of advances in LED technology. LEDs have become ubiquitous in daily life, glowing from the faces of VCRs, clock radios and microwave ovens. But these LEDs have been humble indicator lights on all manner of electronic appliances. Once limited in brightness and stuck at the red end of the spectrum, LEDs have become more powerful in the past dozen years. And a breakthrough in the early 1990s created blue LEDs, suddenly making the whole rainbow available and holding up the promise of white-light LEDs-either by blending the output of colored LEDs or by more exotic techniques. Color Kinetics buys LEDs from device makers such as Agilent and Cree and incorporates them in lamps that give off virtually any color-changing a white wall or a store display from pale green to hot pink at a whim.

Their devices, aimed right now mostly at the retail and entertainment markets, take advantage of some of the special characteristics of LEDs: small size, light weight, low power consumption, nearly infinite selection of colors. But lighting experts say this is only the beginning. Ahead lie entire buildings that light up, traffic lights that last a decade, headlights that won’t exhaust your car battery if you leave them on and perhaps even cheap, long-lasting lamps that will drive incandescent and fluorescent bulbs to extinction.

Making Light Work

Thomas Edison is acclaimed, above all else, for inventing the light bulb. While his other inventions-such as the phonograph, the mimeograph and the tickertape machine-have been displaced in recent decades by digital technologies, the light bulb continues to shine on. Now, after 12 decades, technological advances are finally threatening to dethrone it. Anticipating the transition, the major lighting manufacturers are forging alliances with LED makers. General Electric Lighting joined forces with chip-maker Emcore last year to form a lighting division called GELCore, based in Independence, Ohio. Philips Lighting and Agilent Technologies, a Hewlett-Packard spinoff, created LumiLeds in San Jose. And Osram Sylvania has teamed with the semiconductor business of its parent company, Siemens. “You’re seeing a big drive by light bulb manufacturers, who are in some sense eating into their own business, but with the recognition that if they don’t do it, someone else will,” says Makarand Chipalkatti, marketing and technical manager for LED light services at Osram Sylvania in Danvers, Mass.

Not all the players in this field, however, are big companies. Startups are getting into the act as well. Mueller and Lys of Color Kinetics met at Carnegie Mellon University, where Lys earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and Mueller majored in computer and electrical engineering, with a minor in fine art. Their first venture into lighting, in 1992, was to build a novelty sign like one Mueller had seen in the Detroit Science Center. A single vertical row of LEDs displayed slices of an image, one column at a time. The human brain, responding as if the viewer’s eye were scanning across an unbroken image, would reassemble the picture. The first sign Mueller made said “LOVE”; he gave it to his mother. Then, for the roommates who bet him he couldn’t do it, he built a sign that read “BEER.”

“We wrote a business plan around it because I was taking business school classes,” recalls Mueller. He had three goals for the resulting firm, Stone Age Technologies. The first two were typical student desires: earn some beer money and get a couple of freebies (in this case, free signs). “The third goal was to be on the cover of In Pittsburgh magazine,” he says, picking through a basket of designer potato chips to find the orange ones. “My new goal is Rolling Stone.”

“I’ll settle for the Wall Street Journal,” puts in Lys, the shorter-haired, less kinetic half of the pair. The technical guru, Lys is an engineer who, like his counterparts at computer startups, comes to work around noon and stays late.

Although Lys and Mueller came up with the idea for digital lighting in 1993, they put it aside when Mueller and his brother Gary went off to found an economics research firm, Internet Securities, Inc. The brothers sold 80 percent of the Boston-based company last year for $43 million. Mueller disdains the traditional “brass, glass and gas” lighting industry. “It’s boring,” he declares. “There’s no technology involved.”

Maybe not, but there certainly is money involved. The United States buys $3.5 billion worth of incandescent bulbs, fluorescent tubes and halogen lamps each year; globally the market is $11.5 billion. So far, the market for bright, visible-light LEDs is relatively puny-about $680 million, according to research firm Strategies Unlimited. But advances in LED technology are moving these devices into an increasing number of applications, and the market is expected to grow to $1.8 billion in five years.

The White Answer

The first LEDs were built in the early 1960s. The tiny chips of semiconductor material, encased in a clear epoxy, give off a single color of light when electricity runs through them. Negatively charged electrons move to fill positively charged regions in the material, called “holes,” where electrons are missing. The combination of an electron and a hole produces a photon of light. The greater the difference in energy between electron and hole-the so-called bandgap-the higher the energy of the photon that emerges. The energy of the photon corresponds in turn to the color of the light; within the visible spectrum, blue and violet photons carry the most energy, orange and red photons the least. Different materials naturally have different bandgaps, so to change the energy level and hence the color of the photons, engineers grow the crystalline semiconductors out of different alloys (see companion article: ” They Come in Colors”).

High-brightness monochromatic LEDs are already making headway in the marketplace. About 10 percent of the red traffic lights in the United States have been replaced by LEDs. They are more expensive than conventional light bulbs but have other advantages that outweigh the cost issue. One is efficiency: A red LED traffic light uses only 15 watts of electricity instead of the 150 watts consumed by traditional stoplights. Another is longevity-the LEDs are expected to bring traffic to a halt without burning out for a full decade. Single-color LEDs’ compactness, low power, intense colors and low heat also have them popping up as car taillights, airplane warning lights on radio towers and runway lights at airports. But the minds of researchers and the eyes of the lighting industry are focused on white.

And that creates a challenge: How do you get white light out of devices that are, by nature, monochromatic? One method involves mixing LEDs of different colors so they appear white. Just as a television set makes all the colors it displays-including white-out of glowing red, green and blue phosphors, the right combination of LEDs can give the appearance of white. The standard way to mix is with three separate red, green and blue diodes, but the right combination of just two-say blue and orange-can also produce white.

The Photonic Squeeze

Whichever methods are chosen to make white light, the LEDs involved have to put out more light and become more energy efficient if they’re to replace Edison’s bulbs. White LEDs produce about 10 lumens of illumination per watt of electricity consumed, which is comparable to the performance of incandescent bulbs (a lumen is a measure of how brightly the eye perceives light). Roughly 10 percent of the electricity that they consume gets turned into light-marginally better than the 7 to 8 percent figure for incandescent bulbs. But LEDs are still too expensive to challenge your average GE Soft White. On sale at the local discount store, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs run about a dollar for a package of four and deliver 1,500 lumens of illumination apiece. “I cannot make an LED that gives you 1,500 lumens for 25 cents,” says Roland Haitz, research and development manager of the semiconductor product group at Agilent. He predicts that in “a few years,” his group will be able to make a 1,500-lumen LED that could sell for $150. He doubts the average homeowner will be rushing out to buy such a product.

LEDs made from AlInGaP are pretty efficient at turning electricity into light. About 90 percent of the electrons that enter the diode generate photons. Unfortunately, this semiconductor alloy also has a high index of refraction (a measure of how much a material bends light rays). Instead of shining out for all to see, therefore, most of the photons bounce around the interior of the diode and turn to waste heat; only 30 percent of them emerge as visible light. GaN has a lower index of refraction, so more light escapes from LEDs made from that material. Only 30 percent of the electricity fed into a GaN device is converted to light in the first place, though, so the final efficiency is still only about 10 percent. That’s plenty bright for something like a traffic light, but not for general illumination.

This is not an insurmountable problem, says George Crawford, chief technical officer at LumiLeds. Researchers there have been experimenting with new structures of the diodes to let more photons escape. Conventional LEDs consist of cube-shaped crystals. But by arranging the layers of the semiconductor differently and cutting the wafers to create sloping sides, LumiLeds has created an inverted pyramid that results in a shorter optical path for the photons to traverse. In the lab, LumiLeds has managed to get half the photons out of an inverted pyramid LED made of AlInGaP, and they hope to have such LEDs in commercial production this year. “Fifty percent is plausible, but hard,” Crawford says, but adds: “It’s hard for me to envision doing much better than that.”

Getting half the photons from AlInGaP may be enough to compete with fluorescent lights, but not by itself. Devices made of that material provide only the red and yellow light. The complementary blue photons needed to produce white light must come from gallium nitride, and there the technology is still embryonic. “We really don’t understand the fundamentals of how to build a better crystal in gallium nitride,” says Steve Johnson, leader of the lighting research group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Researchers are looking for a shot of government funding to help their quest. Arpad Bergh, president of the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association, wants a major R&D effort to bring LEDs to the point where they can compete with traditional light sources. His group is working with Johnson at Lawrence Berkeley to develop a research plan for more efficient white-light LEDs and intends to ask Congress for a five-year, $50 million per year funding program that would start as soon as 2002. Meanwhile, Haitz has written a white paper with Sandia National Laboratories calling for the government to pour $500 million into research over 10 years. Such an expenditure is needed, Haitz argues, to lift LED lighting over the hurdles that are now impeding progress. Left on its own, he argues, the lighting industry will advance LEDs only enough to take about one-tenth of the lighting market by 2025. But with government help, he says, the devices could by that year account for half the market. Because lighting accounts for about 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States, a shift to the more efficient LED technology could render significant energy savings.

An Eerie Glow

But if LEDs are to capture a large share of the illumination market, they will have to produce light with the right tone. As anyone who has ever taken an indoor picture with outdoor film knows, incandescent light has a strong yellow cast, and designers say it has a warm feel. White phosphor LEDs, on the other hand, emit a distinctly bluish glow. “If you’re trying to illuminate a red object with a white LED that only has blue and yellow in the spectrum, you’re not going to get a very nice-looking red,” warns Kathryn Conway of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That can be a problem with human skin, for instance, which looks unnatural under light that doesn’t approximate daylight. Renowned New York lighting designer Howard Brandston points out: “You don’t want someone to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘Egads! I could audition for “The Addams Family” without makeup.’”

But the technology will definitely keep improving, since the payoff is large-in part because with LEDs, you’ll be able to turn a dial to get lighting with just the right feel for the situation at hand. Brett Andersen, a senior designer at Focus Lighting, a New York-based lighting design firm, envisions a day when people will be able to set the color and brightness of the light in their homes according to their moods. This kind of control will make the old-fashioned dimmer switch a primitive tool for creating ambience. Beyond that, LEDs offer new possibilities that raise more fundamental questions about how people think about lighting, says Chipalkatti of Osram Sylvania. “How would things look if the building itself was a light fixture?” he asks. “You could have your floor or your ceiling light up.”

In the offices of Color Kinetics, software writer Mike Blackwell sits on the chameleon couch and demonstrates the program he’s developed for lighting designers to create effects with the company’s lights. He sets a row of lamps to run through the spectrum, repeating the cycle every 10 seconds. Then he adds a white pulse that moves down the row once a second. The effect is jarring, reminiscent of the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s. It also suggests artifacts of another era: those desktop-published newsletters of the mid-1980s, brimming with clashing fonts. But if lighting designers are right, more sophisticated users will be able to create subtler effects or repaint their walls with light. And perhaps the incandescent bulb will join an earlier lighting standard, the candle, as a quaint accent for special occasions, while our days and nights are lighted in the glow of tiny chips.

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