From Edison to LED

Consumers must decide on alternatives as energy-hungry incandescent bulbs are phased out

(National Archives)
By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / December 28, 2009

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Nearly 130 years ago, Thomas Alva Edison received patent No. 223,898 for the invention of “an Improvement in Electric Lamps.’’ That spawned the incandescent bulbs we all know today - and which in 2012 will begin to fade under federal regulations designed to increase energy efficiency.

The incandescent phaseout, as many are calling it, means consumers need to start switching to energy-saving lighting options. Currently, their choices include halogen bulbs, which are 30 percent more efficient than incandescents; squiggly shaped compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs; and bulbs made with light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Both CFLs and LEDs are about 80 percent more efficient than incandescents.

But getting consumers to drop a technology they have used for more than a century is challenging, those in the lighting industry say. Many are put off by the odd shapes of some of the newer bulbs, like CFLs, and the color of light that some of the bulbs emit.

When it comes to efficiency, LEDs appear to be the front-runner to replace incandescents. It’s a whiz-bang-type of semiconductor technology that uses hardly any energy and produces minimal heat. The diodes already are found in some signs, cash registers, televisions, cars, and holiday lights.

Osram Sylvania, a lighting manufacturer headquartered in Danvers, recently debuted a pricey but efficient bulb made with LEDs that company officials say is capable of burning 25,000 hours, or roughly two decades, if burned three hours a day, the average use. The typical incandescent burns about 1,000 hours, or up to a year.

Even as new federal rules loom, however, it appears most consumers are not paying much attention to new lighting technology, unaware that the Edison-inspired technology will soon disappear. The regulations, adopted in 2007, ban power-hungry 100-watt incandescent bulbs - which produce light by heating a filament in a vacuum - starting in 2012.

The lights waste about 90 percent of the energy they produce. The 75-watt incandescents must go by 2013, and 40- and 60-watt bulbs will go dark by 2014.

According to an Osram Sylvania survey, only about 1 in 4 US residents knows the future is dim for incandescents. That presents a marketing challenge for it and other companies making lighting that complies with the tougher rules.

“It’s important for Osram Sylvania to prepare the consumer,’’ said Rick Leaman, its chief executive. “We’re working on education, but we’re also working on the products.’’

Leaman said the company is producing several types of energy-saving lights - including halogen lights, CFLs, and bulbs made with LEDs, which currently account for about 12 percent of the company’s worldwide revenues.

“We believe LED is the future. It is the ultimate in energy savings,’’ Leaman said.

LEDs make light by moving electrons from one band to another. The bulbs create far less heat than incandescents, which give off radiant heat and can become too hot to touch. LEDs do produce some conductive heat, but it is absorbed by a “heat sink’’ - a strip of metal wrapped around the base of the bulb.

Aside from that metal strip, designers at Osram tried to mimic the classic A-line shape of the incandescent bulb when they made the company’s 8-watt LED bulb, which is meant to replace a 40-watt incandescent. They hope that because it looks like an incandescent, consumers will be more likely to consider using the bulb.

Many believe consumers have been slow to adopt to CFLs partially because of their strange corkscrew form.

“It’s taken them a long time to get traction, and part of it is because they didn’t have that A-line shape,’’ said Phil Rioux, general manager of Osram Sylvania’s LED retrofit product line. “The A-line shape is kind of like apple pie. American consumers are familiar’’ with it, he said.

But while the LED bulbs last for a long time, they aren’t cheap, at least initially - the suggested retail price is $35. That could keep some consumers from trying the new technology, even though it will save them money in the long run.

“Your average Joe going to Wal-Mart isn’t going to be spending that type of money,’’ said Jonathan Dorsheimer, who follows several LED manufacturers for Canaccord Adams, a financial services firm with offices in Boston. “Two dollars versus $40 is a tough bet to make, even if you want to save the world.’’

Osram Sylvania’s 8-watt LED bulb currently is for sale at the new Star Market in Chestnut Hill, where the company is testing the product before introducing it to a wider market.

It picked the location partially because the store was built with energy-saving technology, including a fuel cell, environmentally friendly refrigeration, and LED lights - many made by Osram Sylvania.

Dorsheimer said he would not be surprised to see the commercial world using LEDs before they become ubiquitous in homes. The technology, which has been around for over three decades, was first widely used to backlight cellphones, in color screens and consumer electronics, and as brake and tail lights in cars.

“The way I look at it, the LED train has already left the station,’’ Dorsheimer said. “I propose to you that in the next one to two years, the next time you’re in a Starbucks getting your coffee, look up and the way these stores are going to light up is probably going to be vastly different than what you see now.’’

The increased awareness of lighting and energy efficiency is just fine by Rioux.

“We’ve always been lighting geeks,’’ he said. “Now we’re becoming more cool.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at

EDISON’S LIGHT BULB Thomas Edison received patent number 223,898 for
“an Improvement in Electric Lamps’’ on Jan. 27, 1880. It paved the way for the
incandescent bulbs we
all know today.
REGULAR LIGHT BULB Incandescent bulbs create light by heating a filament inside a glass envelope. Today, many see them as an inefficient way to illuminate a room, because about 90 percent of the energy they produce is heat. They will start to be phased out, by
federal mandate, in 2012.
LED Bulbs made with light-emitting diodes are about 80 percent more efficient than
incandescents. They create
light by moving electrons
from one band to another,
producing little heat.