Brian Brandes: Is There A Challenger For Solid State Lighting?

Brian Brandes - STACO

With all of the attention paid to LED, are we at risk for missing alternative upstart technologies?

 Solid State Lighting

Is the state of the lighting business solid, or should I say solid state? As our industry is swept up in a rampant, technology change; let’s take a moment to assess where we are, and where we are headed. 

For decades, we effectively applied the fundamentals we learned through our trade and created beautifully illuminated spaces. The tools of the trade were fairly basic, and for the most part, did not present an overly complicated technical execution; they were mostly based on design. 

So here we are in 2013, more than 130 years after Thomas Edison successfully produced the first incandescent lamp for widespread use and we still use and embrace this highly inefficient light source.  Why has it taken the Lighting industry so much longer to move beyond outdated technology than others like the automotive, television, computer industries? 

I would venture a guess that there are other factors at play here. Lighting is a visual and functional medium. Not only do we look to achieve the goal of lighting a space to see and perform a task, we light spaces for the aesthetic appeal and emotional effect it has on us. Mood, ambiance, color, adjustability – these are all the attributes that make lighting such an important part of a design plan.

Although other light source technologies have tried to find their way into the technical and emotional parts of our craft – and a few have succeeded in limited ways – no other has made the breakthrough in the way LED has. LED is our “smartphone” — it has and will continue to change lighting in ways we are just now beginning to realize. LED’s digital properties enable these light-producing semi-conductors the ability to network into automation systems, with a high level of customized and independent control.  

How We Got Here

The term “solid state” is itself a historic game changer. Some may recall when radios and other electronic devices changed over from previous technologies (i.e. vacuum tubes) to the new “solid state” technology, which was proudly identified on products of that time. The lighting industry has a unique opportunity to elevate the awareness and importance of quality lighting by utilizing this historic technical change. 

Hungry to embrace the change, yet cautious of the risks, we move forward, all of us together. Manufacturers of light sources – who once coveted a skill and knowledge exclusive to a limited group – have now entered into a digital realm instead of one with flames, gases, and tungsten. Retailers, who are now required to act as field engineers, must ensure that their employees are well-informed on a technology that is changing faster anyone imagined. In addition, retail buyers are now tasked will the challenge of evaluating and validating new technology, as it emerges, to determine if they are confident in the product.  Manufacturers’ representatives have to act as the conduit of new information on a vast and quickly changing array of the LED products from numerous vendors to all of their customers. We are all now part of the electronics world, which invites an untold number of new participants, some with an understanding of what lighting aesthetically and functionally needs to be, others who will take some time to grasp it.  

The editorial focus of this issue of enLIGHTenment is Light Bulbs and Emerging Light Source Technology.  Let’s put LED aside for the moment; what other lamp types are new? As a result of the EISA (Energy Independence and Security Act) of 2007 and the recent DOE (Department of Energy) new lamp efficiency requirements, we now see a new breed of high efficiency incandescent lamps. These lamps are actually a halogen/xenon light source. Xenon gas is added to the halogen mixture and increases the efficacy to meet the legislation’s requirements, which is a positive (halogen gas on its own could not meet the lumen per watt requirement). The cons are that the xenon gas is expensive and in order to meet the efficiency requirements, the lamp life in most cases is reduced to a range from 1,000-2,000 hours. The new halogen/xenon mix is now what is used in most PAR, R, and A types that have been impacted by legislation and soon many decorative lamps that are to be delisted. As Federal lamp legislation continues to become effective throughout the next six years, these lamp types will again face new challenges. It is obvious that all of the new lamp legislation written and enacted over the past several years is a roadmap to LED, or to a worthy newcomer. 

After the exercise of developing new lamps to meet the Federal requirements, the elimination of many lamp types, and knowing that most other lamp technologies have matured to the point of their highest level of efficiency and performance, it brings us back to LED.  

Notes From Lightfair

Today, the choice of LED replacement lamps is wide and varied. Each design approach, from every corner of the LED technology toolbox, is out there vying for a place in the market; each one professing that their concept is the “ONE.” After participating in and observing this year’s Lightfair in Philadelphia, I do believe the industry is getting closer to some form of standardization.  The radical shapes and remote phosphor (yellow) lenses have toned down a bit, and more familiar lamp shapes and sizes are now the norm. Performance parameters are beginning to equalize and the opportunistic start-up companies were fewer in number. 

Advancements in COB (chip on board); higher LPW (Lumen per watt) LED packages, and IC (integrated circuit) drivers have made LED replacement lamps more reliable and affordable. The wider use of medium-power LED solutions has spawned the use of new heat-sinking methods, which have eliminated the former heavy, finned aluminum heat sinks that are now replaced with smooth aluminum bodies that perform the task and retain the traditional appearance of its incandescent counterpart. 

Recently a new generation of general service A-type omni- and multi-directional lamps has been introduced. The majority of general service-type lamps have been directional in their light distribution patterns, typically providing an 1800beam pattern. The omni versions will create a 3600angle, truly mimicing the light patttern of the incandescent A lamp. The multi-direction versions create beam angles between the previous two referenced. ENERGY STAR-qualified lamps are required to clearly identify these charateristics. Advancments in design have also brought the Omni A lamps back to a more familiar size and shape.  

On the Horizon

In order to exceed beyond the average LED lamps of today, it will take new abilities and innovations. Some of these innovations are beginning to find their way into the market, although few in number. In the near future, LED light bulbs will morph into sleeker, lightweight smart devices that can integrate into home automation systems or be controlled by mobile phones, tablets, etc., all by wireless configurations. 

All roads seem to point us in the direction of LED. Throughout all aspects of the lighting and electrical industry, each player – whether they are a ballast, control, luminaire, component, or lamp manufacturer – is keenly focused on moving their business forward, to be a part of the LED transformation, and not be left behind. 

With all of the attention LED is garnering, this question needs to be asked: Is there a challenger? Is there an alternative upstart technology to rival LED? I’ve asked this question to many and the response is usually the same: “none that I know of.”  Don’t get me wrong, there are other technological alternatives to LED that have merit and will continue to develop and possibly get our attention. For now, however, LED seems to own the stage. 

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