This week is the R&D priorities meeting of DOE’s Solid State Lighting program.  As discussed in last week’s post, solid state lighting is turning a corner…although perhaps it’s not quite as far around that corner as it seemed.  The essential value proposition is that light-emitting diodes (LEDs) offer the capability of generating light more efficiently than the legacy sources, including fluorescent bulbs.  What will probably turn out to be even more valuable is the changing expectations about illumination.  Put simply, LEDs can do things that other light sources cannot do.

But there are some problems.

First, the technology is changing so rapidly that output specifications and physical configurations are resisting standardization.  System developers integrating LEDs into lamps, luminaires, or large projects are faced with a situation where, as one designer put it, “we don’t have non-recurring engineering costs, we have endlessly recurring engineering costs.”  

Second, there are a lot of cheap and cheap products out there.  There is widespread concern in the industry that bad experience with poorly-performing lights will poison the perception of consumers.  There are systems claiming 90% energy savings and lifetime of 150,000 hours–neither of which is currently realizable.  There will certainly be a shakeout, but until then consumers can look for the “Energy Star” label as one mark of quality.

Third, although LEDs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs, they still generate heat.  Instead of radiating into the room, as incandescents do, the build up heat in the base–heat that must be conducted away.  This has always been an issue, and it’s always been acknowledged, but kind of in an “yeah, we have to deal with the thermal problem” way.  This year, the attendees appear to be pushing thermal management issues to the front of DOE’s SSL R&D priority list.  It’s good news, because this elephant has been in the room for a while, and now maybe he can be pushed out.

Speaking of DOE’s SSL program, this has to be one of the best allocations of government money I’ve seen in quite a while.  Just as an example, DOE sets research priorities–which areas will be funded–by consulting with people within the field: academics, national laboratory staff, public utility companies, lighting designers, LED manufacturers–the list goes on!  This way, the program is tailored to the needs of the industry, accelerating product development and deployment.  But even better: this program puts all it’s information out there.  Test reports, analyses, project reviews…it’s a wonderful example of taxpayer money not only wisely spent, but spent right in front where everyone can see what’s being bought with their money.  Take a look.