Because of the “New Light Bulb Law,” Jan. 1 of this year marked the beginning of the end for America’s most popular source of light — the incandescent bulb. Even though these bulbs have lit homes around the world since the late 1800s, energy-inefficient incandescents are being phased out in favor of new types of bulbs that bring more light for less power.
Taking their place is the LED (short for light emitting diode). When LEDs were first introduced, they were primarily used for traffic signals. Now, we see them in lamps, flashlights, cell phone screens, computers, automobile headlights and more.
And now, two scientists in Japan and one from the University of California at Santa Barbara have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for their part in LED development.
The scientists’ work “triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology,” the academy says. “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century, the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”
Here are three things to know about this source of light:
1. There’s no such thing as “white” LEDs
Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura won the Nobel Prize for their blue light emitting diode. LEDs were invented in the 1960s, but only came in red and green. For several decades, scientists struggled to create the blue LED, that is, until the Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura figured it out the mid 1990s. With the invention of blue LEDs, we can now create the “white” energy-saving light needed for powering our homes and offices by mixing the three LED colors.
2. They are cheaper and last longer
LED bulbs can cost $20-$40 to purchase, but they’ll save you a lot of money in the long run. Even though they give off the same amount of light as an incandescent, they last about 25 times longer. According to SFGate, “If the bulb is left on for eight hours per day, it will last over 17 years. During that lifespan, an LED bulb will use 300 kilowatt hours of electricity. At 20 cents per kilowatt hour, the lifetime electricity cost of an LED bulb is $60.” Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates if that every home replaced a single incandescent bulb with an energy-efficient one, the country would save about $600 million in energy costs. Even better news? As the technology improves and becomes more efficient, prices of these bulbs will only come down.
3. They are clearly better for the environment
Unlike fluorescent or incandescent bulbs, LEDs don’t get that hot. That’s because LEDs “convert electricity directly into photons of light, instead of the wasteful mixture of heat and light generated inside traditional, incandescent bulbs,” the BBC writes. Since they are powered with less energy, LEDs don’t use as much of our precious natural resources, such as coal or gas. The lights “hold great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids,” the Nobel Prize committee says.
Besides the LED, the other type of energy-efficient bulb is the Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs), which is the coiled, tubular variety. However, CFLs not only have a shorter life span compared to LEDs, they also contain a small amount of mercury (meaning need to be recycled properly!). Researchers found that LEDs are clearly winning the race to save energy and the environment.