Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why LED light bulbs cost so much and how that’s about to change

Like it or not, energy-saver light bulbs are about to become the next big thing.

Starting next year, lighting manufacturers will begin a government-sanctioned phase out of incandescent bulbs that don’t meet new efficiency standards. So far, the transition is looking like it’ll be anything but smooth. Some conservatives are already seeking to repeal the law, arguing that it infringes upon consumer choice. But what’s most troubling is the fact that the alternatives haven’t quite caught on.

For instance, compact florescent light bulbs (CFL) account for a mere 5 percent of all bulb sales. Despite being widely available and technological improvements that have enabled the technology to closely mimic the tones and soft glow of incandescents, there’s still environmental and health concerns over the amount of mercury circulated inside the spiral tubes.

The other alternative that’s emerged over the last few years is one the industry has long been high on. Light emitting diodes (LED) are not only more efficient than CFLs, but they also last much longer, sometimes a decade or more. But the high upfront costs means that it’s only during that stretch that the true cost savings start to come into light. Not a bad deal, though try telling that to consumers who suddenly have to shell out 30 bucks or more for a light bulb when they’re used to paying less than a dollar.

Related: World’s cheapest light bulb

So why are they so pricey? And are they going to get noticeably cheaper anytime soon? Fast Company magazine recently dissected the technology behind LED bulbs and revealed why the manufacturing process is such a costly one.

What they discovered through an analysis of the materials, labor and parts was that turning an LED into a light bulb requires the integration of some pretty sophisticated technologies. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Components on the circuit board is often assembled by hand because its still too complicated for factory machines.
The actual LED wafer can cost as much as $8 a unit.
The brightest LEDs generate blue light. So in order to get the more natural white glow, manufacturers typically coat the bulb with yellow phosphor, an expensive rare earth metal compound imported from China.
LEDs additionally require the use of drivers to convert energy into electrical current. This component alone can cost up to $4.
Although LEDs burn cooler than Edison bulbs, they still need a conducting material to dissipate the heat. The aluminum used to accomplish this can cost as much as $3.

The article also mentioned some newer technologies that bulb-makers are hope will help bring down the cost in due time, some of which include:

Using larger wafers that would allow LEDs to be built.
The production of green LEDs that when mixed with red and blue ones create white light.
Smaller heat sinks that require less aluminum.