How LED Light Bulbs Work
The light bulb that has lit up our homes since the 1800s is officially on its way out. The inefficient incandescent, which loses most of its energy as heat, hasfallen out of favor with the financially and ecologically concerned; starting in 2012, U.S. residents won't be able to buy one even if they want to [source: Linden].
The government is taking the little energy suckers off the market.The prime replacement for the incandescent light bulb is the higher-efficiency compact fluorescent, or CFL. The CFL, though, has its own problems, primarilythe inclusion of toxic mercury in the design and a strange, sometimes unpleasant color that even gives some people headaches.Enter the LED, or light-emitting diode. LEDs have been around for many years -- they light up digital clocks, Christmas lights, flashlights and traffic signals, andthey tell you when you've got a new voicemail message on your cell phone. But as far as household lighting goes, LEDs have never really taken off. Certaindrawbacks have kept companies from manufacturing them in standard, replacement-size light bulb form.In the last few years, though, these LED replacement bulbs, the kind you just screw into a lamp like you do an incandescent bulb, have become much morecommon -- which is to say a fair number of businesses and a handful of households are using them.In some ways, LED light bulbs are a perfect technology. But they still have a way to go before they become the higher-efficiency bulb of choice. In this article,we'll find out why. We'll look into how they work, why they're a desirable lighting choice, and what will have to change before the rest of us start using them inour bedside lamps.Let's begin with the basics: How does an LED produce light?
LED Light Bulb Basics
Energy-efficiency has been popular since at least 1918, when this poster was published by the U.S. government.An LED is what's called a "solid-state lighting" technology, or SSL. Basically, instead of emitting light from a vacuum (as in an incandescent bulb) or a gas (as ina CFL), an SSL emits light from a piece of solid matter. In the case of a traditional LED, that piece of matter is a semiconductor.Stated very simply, an LED produces light when electrons move around within its semiconductor structure.A semiconductor is made of a positively charged and a negatively charged component. The positive layer has "holes" -- openings for electrons; the negativelayer has free electrons floating around in it. When an electric charge strikes the semiconductor, it activates the flow of electrons from the negative to thepositive layer. Those excited electrons emit light as they flow into the positively charged holes.The problem with LEDs as primary home lighting is that while they emit a lot of light, the structure of an LED causes some of that light to get trapped inside. Soan LED bulb has traditionally been dimmer than an incandescent bulb, and most people want their lamps and ceiling fixtures to be pretty bright.Recently, though, LEDs bulbs have brightened up. You can now find LED replacement bulbs that emit light equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent light bulb,which makes them a viable technology for basic lighting needs at home.And in some ways, they're much more than viable: An LED replacement light bulb called GeoBulb emits 60-watt equivalent light using 7.5 watts of power.And in other ways, less than viable: A 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb costs about $100.Which brings us to the pros and cons of LED light bulbs.
Advantages of LED Light Bulbs
Some LED bulbs can last up to 50,000 hours.While you won't find LEDs in too many household lighting fixtures these days, there are a couple of good reasons to want them there in greater numbers.First, there's the reduced energy use. The LED method of producing light loses far less energy to heat than do other lighting technologies. It's dramatically moreefficient than the vacuum/filament method used in incandescent bulbs -- sometimes around 85 percent more efficient; and it's even about 5 percent moreefficient than the CFL's plasma-tube approach [source: Taub].
A single light fixture stocked with a 60-watt incandescent bulb consumes about 525 kWh of electricity in a year; put a GeoBulb LED bulb in that light fixture, andthe annual energy use is more like 65 kWh [source: Sundance]. The annual CO
reduction is in the hundreds of pounds for a single lamp.But energy-efficiency is just part of the story. The other part is time-efficiency: You could go 20 years without having to change an LED light bulb. Solid-statelights like LEDs are more stable light sources than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, and the difference is startling: A typical incandescent bulb lasts about 750hours; a Geobulb lasts 30,000 hours [source: Sundance].
Some LED bulbs last up to 50,000 hours [source:Linden].Because of that time benefit, things get a bit more muddled when you get into the cost issue. A 60-watt LED replacement bulb runs in the area of $100, andeven the lower-output versions, used for things like spot lighting, will cost between $40 and $80. That's compared to a $1 incandescent and a $2 fluorescentbulb.The reality is, even at $100 for a single bulb, LEDs will end up saving money in the long run, because you only need one every decade or two and you spendless money on home lighting, which can account for about 7 percent of your electric bill [source: Greener Choices]. But the upfront cost is still pretty prohibitive.
Lots of people simply can't spend a thousand dollars for 10 light bulbs.The other primary LED issue -- degradation in the color of the light to something bluish -- has been solved in newer models. LEDs can produce the same soft,white light as a regular bulb. (Although Energy Star does recommend looking for the Energy Star label when shopping for LED bulbs, since the organizationtests for color stability as part of its certification criteria.)So price is really the only problem with LED light bulbs right now. But that could change pretty soon.
Concerns about LED Light Bulbs