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Not even a center for the Celtics can come close to reaching the ceilings at the Massachusetts State House. So, every time a light bulb goes out, maintenance staff has to bring in a mechanical lift and a couple of workers to replace it. The building has over 1000 hard-to-reach fixtures.

Side-by-side comparison of LED lamps and sodium lamps

Side-by-side comparison of LED lamps (left) and sodium lamps (right) in Boston

Conventional streetlight illumination “trespasses” into places it’s not wanted, like your bedroom. And the not-so-white color cast off by of these old technology lamps ‒ typically mercury vapor and high pressure sodium ‒ is not ideal for neighborhood safety. These lamps also create light pollution, distorting our look at the night sky.

LED (light-emitting diode) technology addresses these problems: color, trespass and pollution. LEDs have long promised extended life (projected to be upwards of ten years) and low energy consumption. They dramatically reduce the need to swap out those hard-to-get-at bulbs in the State House, along highways and in myriad communities; lower energy consumption and costs; improve safety through enhanced visibility; and offer lots of other operational, environmental and cost advantages.

As the price of LEDs comes down, this technology is becoming the light of choice in homes, on streets and in myriad commercial and industrial applications; even in the State House.LED bulbs

Lighting technology has improved over the years, but the holy grail of getting solid state white light from LEDs remained elusive. Light that we see as white is actually a combination of colors. Red and green LEDs already existed. But to produce white light from these solid state devices, you have to add blue to the mix. Blue LEDs didn’t exist; physics made it hard and scientists and engineers could not beat the blue diode problem. That is until, as The New York Times reported about the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, “. . . three scientists, working together and separately, found a way to produce blue light beams from semiconductors in the early 1990s. Others had produced red and green diodes, but without blue diodes, white light could not be produced . . .”

Still, doesn’t a light bulb seem an odd focus for the rarified air of Nobel prizes? Maybe not. As another Times piece points out, “The physics prize has swung in past years from honoring basic scientific advances to rewarding inventors for breakthroughs with broad societal value.” The article says that “. . . the academy recalled Alfred Nobel’s desire that his prize be awarded for something that benefited humankind, noting that one-fourth of the world’s electrical energy consumption goes to producing light.” It quotes the president of the Institute of Physics, who said that “This is physics research that is having a direct impact on the grandest of scales, helping protect our environment . . .”

From where I sit ‒ in Massachusetts’ energy agency ‒ this was a technological leap truly worthy of the Nobel Prize.

2014 nobel laureates in physics

From left, the researchers Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”Credit Randall Lamb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


Written By:

DOER, Marketing & Collaboration

Tom facilitates marketing and collaboration for DOER constituents, internal and external, including the state's 351 cities and towns. Prior to joining DOER, he worked as a senior marketing professional in high tech – especially software – companies. He also consulted to the U.S. Department of Energy on markets for alternative energy technologies. Tom's expertise applies Web 2.0 and social networking approaches to information technology that enable and accelerate stakeholder engagement, knowledge access and exchange. He graduated from Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where he also did coursework in aeronautical engineering and wrote for Business Week on solar energy. He earned his A.B degree from Harvard in Technology & Public Policy. Tom flies and instructs in gliders -- solar powered aircraft -- and is a jazz drummer.

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