LED makers promise to trip light fantastic

LEDs, once confined to the tiny red indicator lights on TV remote controls, have now grown to illuminate TV screens themselves and promise to shake up the global lighting market.

LED (light emitting diode) backlit TVs were heavily featured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, as manufacturers announced products intended to emulate the success seen by Samsung in 2009.

“One year ago at CES, we announced the introduction of our new LED line-up and people said we couldn’t be successful. Just eight months after their introduction, we’ve now sold more than 2.6m LED TVs worldwide,” said Philip Steel, Samsung’s head of US marketing, at the show.

Samsung, which has 80 per cent of the US market for LED TVs, aims to quadruple global sales in 2010 to more than 10m.

But manufacturers such as LG, another Korean player, say Samsung will not have things all its own way as LED-backlit TVs become available at entry-level as well as premium prices.

“Last year, Samsung was ahead, but this year it will be difficult to see one single player taking the lead and LED will become universal,” said Simon Kang, president of LG’s home entertainment division.

LG will offer cheaper edge-lit LED technology, which requires fewer arrays of diodes, on its entry-level TVs and full LED backlights on premium models.

LEDs have graduated from use in mobile phone screens to backlights for notebooks PCs and now TVs and monitors.

They offer better brightness and contrast, energy savings and slimmer screens than those using the established cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) now used for backlighting.

LED technology was first introduced in 1962, beginning with a low-intensity red light. Semiconductor-based diodes or valves produce light from the excitation of electrons as they are moved over a “light” bridge by a direct electrical current. LEDs differ from traditional incandescent light bulbs, which produce their light from heat generation.

Over the years, white LEDs have been developed by combining chips that produce different colours into a single package, or by adding a yellow phosphor layer. Improvements in light intensity and cost reductions are now resulting in wider adoption of LEDs.

“In the general illumination market we are now on the verge of that hockey stick [curve of growth] . . . with the explosion of the backlighting industry,” said Daniel Amir, semiconductor analyst with Lazard Capital Markets.

Major players in LEDs include GE, Philips, Siemens and Cree. One Silicon Valley start-up, Bridgelux, is claiming major advances that should boost the appeal of LEDs for home, street and retail lighting. Its backers say it plans to increase luminescence, while reducing the cost of an LED bulb from $100 to less than $20 in just a year.

Pete Moran of the DCM venture capital firm says LEDs have advantages such as longer life and greater efficiency compared with both incandescents and the energy-saving compact fluorescents with which consumers are currently replacing them.

“They contain no mercury, they’re inherently dimmable, the colour is more natural and you’ll put one in your house and never need to change the bulb,” he says.

Marc van den Berg of Vantage Point venture partners, another Bridgelux backer, says about 20 per cent of the world’s electricity is needed to power lighting, but all-LED lighting would probably reduce demand by 75 per cent.

As well as the green argument, there are manpower savings from LED’s longevity. Cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, New York and Minneapolis are testing LED street lamps that will not need regular bulb replacement by lighting crews. In retail, Walmart and Starbucks are replacing lighting in their US stores with LED bulbs to cut energy consumption.

Bill Watkins, former chief executive of hard-drive maker Seagate, took over as CEO of Bridgelux last week after being wowed by the potential of the industry.

“For general lighting, this is a $100bn market that’s in the process of being disrupted by LEDs and the incumbents are these old vacuum technologies. So it’s the classic Silicon Valley story – there are not many times you can identify a market that’s going through such a major revolution,” he said.

But as big semiconductor makers such as Samsung and Micron begin to take an interest in the LED industry, it could eventually take on the same characteristics as the DRAM, or flash memory, industries, according to analyst Daniel Amir.

“Over time, it’s going to become much more commoditised because you’ll have very large players manufacturing rather than the fairly fragmented industry of the past,” he says.

The LED industry will then become cyclical, with a period of oversupply as early as the second half of 2011, according to Lazard, although demand should still be growing at rates of 20 to 30 per cent a year.

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