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The scientists who invented blue LEDs just won the Nobel Prize. Here's why their work matters.

Last week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to the minds behind new energy-efficient and environmentally friendly lighting.

Three scientists — Isamu Akasaki, Hiroski Amano, and Shuji Nakamura — were recognized for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

Blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have fundamentally transformed lighting around the world, from lamps and televisions to smart phones and other devices. The Nobel Assembly called them “revolutionary,” stating in the prize announcement that “incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”

On a first read, that sounds like hyperbole — but it’s really not. Here are 3 reasons why blue LEDs have proven to be such a transformative technology.

1. LEDs are incredibly efficient and long lasting

Modern, white LED lamps — which were invented after and because of blue LEDs — have come to exemplify technology that can be both hyper-efficient and made to last.

To put white LEDs in perspective, we can benchmark them against other common light sources, like compact fluorescent (CFL) and incandescent light bulbs. A simple way to compare their efficiencies is by measuring how much light they put out (measured in “lumens”) for every unit of electrical power pumped into them (in watts).

The best white LEDs generate about 300 lumens for each 1 watt input — far more than CFLs (70 lumens per watt) or incandescent bulbs (just 16 lumens per watt). And with approximately one-fifth of the world’s electricity consumption going toward lighting, that huge bump in efficiency could make a huge environmental impact.

Equally impressive is how long LEDs last: up to a staggering 100,000 hours, which vastly exceeds the 10,000 hours for CFLs and 1,000 hours for incandescent bulbs.

2. LEDs could bring light to 1.5 billion people who need it

According to the Nobel announcement, LED lamps have the potential to provide light for 1.5 billion people around the world who do not currently have access to the power grid.

How is that possible? Because LEDs are so astonishingly efficient. Their low energy requirement means that cheap, local solar panels can often easily generate enough juice to power LEDs.

3. LEDs are already easing strain on the grid

While the scientists behind blue LEDs are only being recognized with a Nobel now, their invention has already made a tremendous impact around the world.

In Japan — where Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura were born — commercial LEDs have already taken off. In 2013, sales hit $5.2 billion, and LEDs accounted for 30 percent of all Japanese bulbs. Countries in Southeast Asia, like Thailand, are seeing similar gains. And in India, which is planning a national rollout, experts estimate that LEDs are poised to save more than 50 terawatt-hours every year and cut consumer bills by nearly $4 billion (€3.1 billion).

When you combine LED rollouts with other energy efficiency efforts already being deployed, the results can be tremendous. Just look at Japan — in three short years, the nation’s largest utility has replaced nearly 50% of its nuclear capacity through energy efficiency and other conservation efforts.

 

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