The new light bulb

The search for a better light bulb may be over. The winner isn't what you'd think.

When the U.S. Department of Energy announced a contest to create an ultra-efficient replacement for the common 60-watt incandescent light bulb last year, the US$10-million prize was enticing enough to send aspiring Edisons all over America to their basements to tinker. But the reward — which includes the potential for federal sales contracts — may ultimately go to Philips, the Amsterdam-based electronics giant. The company recently submitted the contest’s first entry, a radical new bulb featuring LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. As long as the product meets the competition’s performance specifications, Philips will be declared a winner of what the Department of Energy has dubbed the L Prize.

Philips says its LED bulb does indeed satisfy the requirements of the prize. That means it uses no more than 10 watts of power, yet produces more light than a traditional 60-watt bulb, and lasts for 25,000 hours, or 25 times as long as regular bulbs do. But perhaps most impressively, it also means that the bulb’s light closely resembles the warm glow of an incandescent bulb. That quality should give LED bulbs a significant advantage over compact fluorescent lights, which remain plagued with the perception of producing cold uninviting light.

Indeed, Nadarajah Narendran, director of research at the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, predicts that LED-based lighting fixtures could achieve a 20% household penetration in the U.S. within five years. Government bans on inefficient bulbs — beginning in 2012 in Canada and the U.S. — should help with consumer acceptance, as will an expected drop in price. Philips has reportedly said that the new bulb’s price should eventually drop to about $25 per bulb.

The L Prize submission from Philips will still require a year of testing before it is officially declared the winner, and LED bulbs in geeral will likely need to overcome some problems before consumers will embrace them. One drawback of LED technology is the tendency of the bulbs to emit light in a single direction rather than casting a uniform glow. Combining an LED light with reflective panels can help to solve this problem, but that impacts efficiency since some of the light will be absorbed as heat.

Nevertheless, there are substantial financial incentives to overcome the challenges. The global market for everyday-use light bulbs is estimated at 15 billion units per year, and the total worldwide demand for LED and other emerging lighting technologies is projected to be worth more than $100 billion by 2014. Narendran says many leading lighting companies are investing in LED research, and if Philips or another company is successful, it could mean that your house will soon be lit by a technological marvel. You’ll be saving $50 a year in electricity costs — and as a country, we’ll be slashing our greenhouse-gas emissions by more than six million tonnes a year.