A bright idea from Japan is changing how we see the world

LED bulbs - nobelIf anyone ever told Shuji Nakamura to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s a good thing he didn’t listen. This week, he and two other Japanese researchers, Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for what amounts to reinventing an equally fundamental device. By creating a blue LED, the scientists have given scores of other innovators a chance to reinvent the light bulb over and over again.

Red and green LEDs have been around since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 90s that the Nobel Prize winners were able to develop the technology to produce blue LED light. The combination of blue, red and green LEDs gives off a white light that’s 20 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. And unlike fluorescent lamps, LED light is visually similar to incandescent, making it a more appealing alternative.

That’s made the light bulb go off for lots of designers. One new LED lighting company, Stack, was created by ex-NASA and Tesla engineers. Its Alba bulb automatically adjusts brightness by sensing natural light levels and household habits. Like the Nest Thermostat, it learns and responds to user behaviour to improve comfort and save energy. For example, it emits a bluer hue in the morning to help you wake up, shuts itself off while you’re out for the day, then glows warmly in the evening when you’re back home.

The Tala LED bulb is clever in a different way. Focusing less on engineering and more on design, it combines the look of an incandescent bulb with the energy savings of an LED.

And for those who don’t want to spend a small fortune on a light bulb (albeit, one that pays for itself before too long), IKEA offers a whole range of affordable LED bulbs (albeit, ones that aren’t as smart as the Alba or as beautiful as the Tala).

The incandescent bulb has been a symbol of ingenuity for over a century, and Thomas Edison didn’t even win a Nobel Prize. May the next century’s bright ideas be marked by the humble glow of an LED.


Photo credit (header): Steve Jurvetson