Monday, November 12, 2012

Quality of Light, Quality of Life

Since I began working with LED startup Soraa in December of 2011, I've gotten a completely new perspective on lighting as a part of the built environment. In many ways it's something of a last frontier on innovation, because, like HVAC systems, few disruptive innovations have surfaced in lighting in recent decades, until now. Solid state lighting is truly revolutionizing lighting- this isn't really news, but the most recent technology development - native substrate LEDs, (GaN on GaN) as developed by Soraa - is a true disruptive factor in the industry.

What's significant about this development is how it focuses the discussion on quality of light. The last major shift in general lighting technology was compact flourescents. Though energy efficient, they have failed to be adopted widely, at least in residential use, because of their poor quality of light. Flourescent light is missing many key parts of the full spectrum we require to provide a satisfying, quality experience of light. Unfortunately, first generation LEDs were also deficient in light quality and ran the risk of not reaching full adoption for the same reason as CFLs.

The first commercially available LED light sources were based on light chips made with non-native substrates (typically GaN on silicon carbide or sapphire). These LEDs have impurities in the basic material that reduce efficiency and require relatively large areas on LED material to produce enough light. This is why you see many LED light sources that are clusters of little yellow things speckling whatever form that is chosen to deliver light- most are somewhat inelegant design solutions at best. Another key problem with these first generation LEDs is that they have a very high "blue spike" in their spectral distribution, which makes them appear overly blue.

Soraa's fundamental native-substrate approach solves both problems- it is smaller and brighter, and, in combination with a unique three-phosphor design, produces for the first time a real full spectrum LED light source. Smaller brighter light sources provide a clean, single beam with crisp shadows that is easily controlled and eliminates the need to extensive mechanical solutions to control and block excessive light that are the mainstay of almost all current lamp and fixture designs with incandescent, flourescent or other light sources. In the average lamp/fixture configuration today, it's not uncommon to have 50% or more (much more in some cases) of the light produced by the source never reach the intended destination. This translates into huge energy waste across the installed base of lighting all over the globe.

It is counterintuitive for most of to believe that products can be more energy efficient (or less fattening) without some kind of sacrifice or tradeoff.  I wrote about quality and eficiency recently HERE. Such tradeoffs are always present at the outset of disruptive innovations, but they often fade away as the technology improves and "commercializes". In the case of both LEDs and CFLs, early versions had many shortcomings that made their energy efficiency irrelevant. CFL quality has improved, but not enough for people to love them. With the advent of native substrate technology, LEDs have now reach an improvement threshold in quality that will allow their widespread adoption.

The bottom line is that LEDs now have the potential to replace incandescent and flourescent sources over a broad range of lighting applications, reducing energy use dramatically while also providing light that is of much higher quality in beam and spectrum. High quality lighting is widely understood to be connected to increased sales in retail, higher productivity in office environments, and better health and well being in all indoor environments.