Building A Better Lightbulb

The U.S. Department of Energy is offering $10 million to the first individual or company to develop an energy-efficient LED replacement for the standard 60-watt incandescent bulb. DOE lighting program manager James Brodrick discusses the L Prize, and what makes a better bulb.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I am Ira Flatow.

Remember when compact fluorescent light bulbs first came out? They were kind of a tough sell because they were expensive. They were too big to fit into your lampshade socket. Remember how you try to squeeze one into that one? They needed time to warm up.

Well, since then, their size has shrunk, the price has come down, but they are cheaply made and burn out quickly many - most of the time, at least in my house.

So is there a better light bulb? The U.S. Department of Energy is willing to pay a lot to find out - $10 million. They have a contest going on. The contest is called the L Prize. And Jim Brodrick is the lighting program manager for the Building Technologies Program at the U.S. Department of Energy. And he's here to talk about it.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Brodrick.

Dr. JAMES BRODRICK (Lighting Program Manager, U.S. Department of Energy): Yes, good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: Good afternoon. Let's talk about the contest. A bulb is chosen. Why did you choose light bulbs?

Dr. BRODRICK: Well, the most ubiquitous light bulb in the United States is the 60-watt incandescent. We estimate there's over 900 million of them in sockets in people's homes and in hotels today. So it uses a lot of energy, and it's a good opportunity to reduce consumption by having a much more efficient light bulb.

FLATOW: So tell us about what's required to enter the contest. What criteria do the bulbs need to meet?

Dr. BRODRICK: Okay. The bulb itself, called the lamp by the lighting industry, is fundamentally a 60-watt light - incandescent light bulb. If you put one in your hands, it would look pretty much the same. The color of the light would be the same, would fit the same socket, and much is the same.

The two big differences, Ira, are that they will be 90 lumens per watt relative to about 12 lumens per watt. Now, that's an efficiency number there. And the other item is that it's 25,000 hours of life, compared to present incandescents, at about 1,000 hours of life.

FLATOW: Hmm. Wow. That's - so they'll be seven or eight times - give off as much light and much more efficient. And what is - what candidate do you have in hand? You actually have an LED device, correct?

Dr. BRODRICK: Yes, that's correct, Ira. At the end of September, we received an entry from Philips Lighting. To enter, they had to send us 2,000 samples, because we intend to do a lot of testing. So we're really excited about Philips entering, and the contest is still open. We'd like more companies to enter it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And most of the bulb has to be manufactured right here in the old USA, right?

Dr. BRODRICK: That is correct, Ira. It's U.S. taxpayer dollars in motion, and we want to have - benefit for the U.S. people, including jobs and energy savings both.

FLATOW: And so far, how many - you just have this one contestant in the race?

Dr. BRODRICK: Yeah. We - that is correct. We have one entry, but I've been on the phone the last two weeks in discussions with five other companies.

FLATOW: It's interesting that Philips, a foreign light bulb maker, would be a contestant in an American light bulb contest.

Dr. BRODRICK: Yes. At first blush, your senses are right. But Philips is a U.S.-based company. They own buildings, pay taxes and have payroll here with U.S. citizens, so they do qualify for the test - for the contest.

FLATOW: And what does it look like? Does it look like a regular incandescent bulb, shaped like one?

Dr. BRODRICK: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Dr. BRODRICK: They're very, very much so. It has a - it's a little bit different than the normal pear-shape. Obviously, the socket is identical. And when you put it on, as we expected, you get a - what's called a warm white, or it looks just like an incandescent, the light that comes off it. It appears to me to have about the right amount of light coming out of it. We will be testing to make sure that that assumption is correct. And so far, it looks really good.

FLATOW: We have a picture of it on our Web site at sciencefriday.com. It does look very, very interesting. And I'm surprised how uniform the light is going out in all directions on it. I always - you know, I have an LED flashlight that sort of shines in one direction. What have they done to make it so that the light is so uniformly displayed?

Dr. BRODRICK: Okay. Well, I'm sure that's a secret Philips�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BRODRICK: Ira, you're asking those tough questions. But fundamentally, you're correct. The LED, keep in mind, is about the size of a fleck of pepper. And there's a number of LEDs inside this bulb. And so what you have to do is sort of aim them out in directions, and then you can aid this with little lenses - like lenses on your glasses - to further disperse it, and you want to come up with what's called omnidirectional lighting, which, Ira, you noted, it comes out very evenly in all directions. And that's not simple�

FLATOW: No.

Dr. BRODRICK: �with these little, teeny LEDs.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I imagine as, you know, as the first bulbs or the first of devices of everything, that this one would be very expensive to manufacture at this time.

Dr. BRODRICK: Yes. Yes. The LEDs cost quite a bit more. Then you have to add electronics and the packaging and et cetera, et cetera. So, yes, it should cost quite a bit more, but there are certainly some enticements. I'm sure people bought handheld calculators back in the �70s.

FLATOW: Right

Dr. BRODRICK: When you went and looked at the price of those, it was pretty amazing back then.

FLATOW: I remember when the first LED watches were $400. You know, for something that costs $.10 now or something.

Dr. BRODRICK: Yes, exactly. Very good, Ira. Yes, yes. The handheld calculator back in the �70s cost, in today's dollars, about 1,500, you know, which is like, wow.

FLATOW: It was like wow back then. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BRODRICK: Yeah. Yeah. You know, back then, it was about 400. Now, it's about 15. And it did just the four basic functions.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BRODRICK: Today, I don't think you can buy a calculator, a handheld calculator, that does four functions. They give them away for free at banks.

FLATOW: Yeah. So how will we know if when - if and when this is the winner? What do you have to do to win?

Dr. BRODRICK: We're going to go through several levels of testing, and that has already started. We will be putting about 200 of these through what's called photometric testing. This is where - this is a testing lab type of thing where we find out just exactly how much light's coming out. Has it got that nice, even dispersion that you mentioned? Is it the right color that we wanted? So there will be about 200 samples tested there. Then a subcomponent will be sent for stress testing, you know, shake, rattle, roll, bake them, freeze them, all that stuff. And the third level is lifetime testing, which we'll be testing for 6,000 hours, which will take almost nine months.

FLATOW: So you turn them on for 6,000 hours, but they have to last a lot longer than 6,000, right?

Mr. BRODRICK: That is correct. That is correct. The present testing method says that you do them for 6,000 hours. Of course, we'll just leave them right on the test assembly and let them run forever, basically. And then you take that 6,000 hours of test data and you mathematically extrapolate that out to be assured that you can get 25,000 hours of life. The reason 200 samples will be loaded on this test platform is because that's a statistically valid representation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Of course, Philips doesn't need this kind of money. I mean, this is chickenfeed for a big company like them, but yet they've entered the contest, I guess, to sort of stimulate - and you're happy because that's stimulates interest in the LEDs.

Mr. BRODRICK: Well, absolutely, Ira. You're right. Philips is very interested. This is a little bit of the Olympics. Everybody wants to win the gold medal. And also, we have partners. We have 27 utilities and other regional organizations that have signed up to be - are called L Prize partners, and they represent about 100 million electricity consumers in the U.S., and they will be helping the winners take this product to market.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRODRICK: So there's a lot more money on the table than it first appears.

FLATOW: Are these kind of people who would license the technology once Philips creates it, or they actually going to make the components?

Mr. BRODRICK: Okay. The L Prize partners are utilities like Consolidated Edison. Okay? And they do a lot of things. They incentivize, of course.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BRODRICK: They put bill stuffers, and they do joint promotional things. And so, we can't commit the utilities to saying what they will do, but it's very likely they'll do something.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRODRICK: And there's quite a bit of - how do you say it - influencing purchase power with the utilities.

FLATOW: I see that as the word discount.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRODRICK: That's right. It's�

FLATOW: You've been in Washington a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRODRICK: Yeah. That's true. That's true.

FLATOW: Influencing purchasing - I like that. One quick question for you. One thing that, you know, fluorescents can't do - unless you buy really the expensive one just - to be dimmed down. Can these be - put on the dimmer?

Mr. BRODRICK: Oh, absolutely.

FLATOW: They can?

Mr. BRODRICK: Absolutely. Let me mention on the CFLs to help the folks out there listening, is that if you have a CFL you want to put it in a socket that you have a dimmer, you have to look at the box to make sure it says that it's dimmable. Otherwise, you burn it out. Now, with the L Prize - with this replacement bulb, it's totally dimmable because we - well, first of all, we ask for it, but it's also inside the light bulb, it's low voltage DC�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRODRICK: �which is very easy to dim. And since it's a digital - LEDs or light emitting diodes. They are fundamentally an electronic gizmo, a diode�

FLATOW: They're solid state.

Mr. BRODRICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: Solid state light bulbs.

Mr. BRODRICK: Yeah. They're easy to dim.

FLATOW: And so, you - so - there's a little bit of, like, a battery size electric current in there, and you can just turn it down and it'll proportionally dim down as you turn the knob down?

Mr. BRODRICK: That is correct.

FLATOW: And it - was that something that was a requirement, or just something that happens to be in the technology?

Mr. BRODRICK: Oh, no. No. No. Ira, we - no, it's a requirement. It has to be dimmable, and then the submittal has to list at least three available, on-the-market dimmers that it works very well with.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRODRICK: So we're - we want to have it dimmable because of people's interest in that. Plus - I mean, it's not that hard.

FLATOW: Yeah. I hear it. Now, I know you're not a wagering person and you can't really bet on the outcome of this. But if I were betting on it, I would think that Philips has a pretty good leg up on the competition in this contest. Will I be wrong in thinking that?

Mr. BRODRICK: No, you wouldn't be wrong, but let me add that we're looking for three winners.

FLATOW: Ah-ha.

Mr. BRODRICK: So Philips is first, and it looks likely that their horse will cross the line, but we still want win, place, show. We want two other entries to also share in the L Prize name, the branding, and also be supported by our utility partners.

FLATOW: All right. So we will hopefully stimulate some interest for you.

Mr. BRODRICK: Good. Great. Appreciate it.

FLATOW: And you'll get some more contestants here.

Mr. BRODRICK: Good.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

Mr. BRODRICK: Okay. Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Jim Brodrick is lighting program manager for the Building Technologies Program at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington.

We'll take a break. We're going to switch gears and switch oceans, so to speak, with - Sylvia Earle is here. She's going to talk about hew new book, �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One.� It's nice to have Sylvia back with us. Your chance to call: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, or hang around in Second Life at SCIENCE FRIDAY island there. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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