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Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:16 am
How many clowns does it take to change an incandescent light bulb? The answer will soon be none.
Over the years the simple filament bulb became an icon of modernity; illustrating cartoon moments of inspiration, or serving as a beaming symbol of mass production, in pop art and beyond. But now, inefficient and environmentally unfriendly, one of the most influential designs of the modern age is being prepared for the dustbin of history.
Legislation coming into effect this year will prohibit traditional energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs being manufactured or sold in the European Union, while similar rules are under discussion in the United States. At the same time, LED (light-emitting diode) technology, once epitomised by the little red dots inside television remotes, has advanced to such an extent that designers are able to create lights previously seen only in implausible futuristic films.
While evangelists for alternative lighting have long argued the environmental benefits of low-energy, long-life bulbs, those within the nascent industry argue incoming legislation, coupled with technological and design improvements, mean its time has now come.
The EU’s 20-20 campaign, which aims to achieve a 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency by 2020, is expected to usher in an age of LED, as they become staple household products.
Frost & Sullivan, the business research group, expects revenues in the efficient lighting market in Europe to reach just under $2bn by 2018, double last year’s amount, as legislation to phase out different types of traditional light bulbs comes into effect.
At the same time, freed from the shackles of the incandescent bulb, a generation of designers have begun to rethink basic assumptions about how lighting can be used in applications from the home to music concerts.
“For designers it is a very exciting time,” says Heleen Engelen, senior designer at Philips Consumer Luminaires. “The LED offers many more opportunities than we had before. This technology enables shapes and possibilities that will in turn lead to new designs and surprising solutions.”
Among the products Philips has worked on are systems to replace daylight inside homes with graded lighting, including control panels to switch the lighting ambience inside a living room from low lit romance to glaring night club with the press of a finger.
Michael Jackson commissioned Philips to produce a glove layered with LEDs, while pop group the Black Eyed Peas used costumes that beam differently depending on what note they are singing.
“People were saying LEDs were just going to be a flash in the pan,” says Paul Middlemiss, group buying director at the Conran Group. “But it has changed quite rapidly in the past 18 months, with a lot more coming on to the market. LEDs give you many different ways of using a light, and designers are tapping into that. They are coming into the mainstream.”
One example of innovative home lighting designs using LEDs is a desk light designed by Jake Dyson, son of famed British inventor James Dyson. Intended to last more than 37 years, the “CSYS task light” features a movable arm that allows the LED to be positioned in almost any direction, taking advantage of the smaller bulb to create a product that would be impossible to make using traditional filament lighting.
“This is technology that really allows people to design something radically different,” says Middlemiss.
Apart from home and desk lighting, other LED applications – such as that within televisions and textiles – are becoming increasingly popular.
One of the main attractions at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas in January, was Samsung’s super-thin 55-inch television screen, while Sony displayed an LED-backed screen offering four times the detail of current high-definition technology.
The quality of LED light, once a drawback, has improved significantly. Several years ago, a lack of dimming and a cold tone had given LED lighting a reputation that can still dissuade people from switching, according to Ajay Vasdev of Asco Lights, a Manchester-based shop and consultancy that has fitted LEDs in the homes of premier league footballers and the boxer Amir Khan.
“LEDs were generally used in commercial applications and people still think they can be cold lights that are never as bright as halogen lights,” says Vasdev. “Now we can dim them and create moods and integrate them within the sophisticated lighting system people increasingly want in their house.”
There are still obstacles to overcome for LED, in spite of the technology having been dealt a seemingly winning regulatory hand. For example, LED products remain a hard sell to many consumers. While their efficiency benefits have rarely been disputed, the issue has been cost, with consumers forced to balance the benefits of lower long-term energy bills with significantly higher initial investments.
An incandescent light bulb, costing about 10 or 20 euro cents, will last for around 1,000 hours. An LED lamp for the same light output uses only 10 to 20 per cent of the energy and will last 10 to 15 years.
However, while once prohibitively expensive, the cost of LED lighting has fallen sharply in the past two years, meaning products that would once have appeared an extravagant plaything are likely to come within reach of the average consumer.
“It is still a niche market, but it is starting to explode,” says Vivek Wali, a research associate at Frost & Sullivan. “Within lighting the largest market is the residential consumer, and they have been slow in catching up on LEDs, as LED products are much more expensive than other technology, such as incandescent bulbs. This [cost] is now falling sharply.”
In 2011, the average sale price for an LED lamp was about $38, compared to an expected price of $32 this year, according to Wali. As the market continues to grow, he expects economies of scale to further drive down prices until LED-backed technology becomes easily affordable for most European consumers.
“Will this kill the light bulb? That sounds very heavy,” says Engelen. “But I think it is the logical continuation of technology. LEDs just enable so much more. They are unstoppable.”
|LED bulbs from £4.19, www.thelightbulb.co.uk|
|LED sink by WET, €238||LED bathtub, €1,680, www.wet.co.it|
|CSYS LED task light, £550, www.jakedyson.com|
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