The Nobel Prize-Winning Lightbulb Tech That Could Save Millions of Lives

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This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to the trio of scientists behind blue LED light technology, which makes white LEDs possible: Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura. At first, that might feel a bit, well, underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong—LEDs are great. Those spunky diodes power traffic signals, efficient light bulbs, and even electronic contact lenses.

But we might have expected something with a bit more gravitas. Last year, after all, we had the Higgs Boson. The year before that, the measurement and manipulation of quantum systems.

Then again, LEDs aren’t just another set of light bulbs. Their increased efficiency could bring power to billions of people who are still living without electricity. Unlike the discovery of the Higgs boson, LEDs are primed to start saving and improving lives as we speak. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Physics, explained that element of their decision in a statement:

The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power.

Billions of people still don’t have access to electricity in their homes. Instead, after the sun goes down, many burn carbon-based fuels and biomass—coal and kerosene are obvious choices, but anything flammable is fair game. That results in indoor air pollution, and the toxic effects claim between 3.5 and 4.3 million lives every year (malaria, by comparison, kills only about 627,000). But LED lights offer one of the most inexpensive, sustainable lighting alternatives for the developing world.

“When we started out 15 years ago, there were no scalable solutions—large energy-hungry fluorescent bulbs required large, expensive solar panels and complicated installation,” Dr. Evan Mills, founder of the Lumina Project, which promotes affordable off-grid lighting in the developing world, told CNN in 2012. “Now, LEDs the size of a cherry can generate light 100 times brighter than a kerosene lamp at a very low wattage, while solar cells have become much more efficient.”

In developing nations, light bulbs can be expensive and hard to come by. So it doesn’t make sense to install fancy solar panels and then hook them up to light bulbs that need to be changed every few months.

LEDs provide a solution. These lights last about 30 times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs. Some LEDs, National Geographic reports, can survive up to 17 years if they are only used for about four hours every day. When long-lasting bulbs team up with solar panels, the result is a less expensive and more efficient source of electricity.

A bunch of companies currently sell off-grid LED lighting products to developing nations, especially in Africa. CNN reports that, as of 2012, these companies had provided electricity for about 1.5 million people across the continent.

It’s not just about bringing better lighting to poorer nations, however. LEDs provide low-cost, high-fidelity lamps that are already showing up in automobile headlights and safety vests.

There are also medical applications. In countries where physicians still cannot afford incubators for premature infants, LED-powered devices might provide a similar, more affordable alternative.

Hey, it may not be the Higgs, but LEDs sure look a lot like the future. The Royal Swedish Academy put it best: “Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.”

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“The Nobel Prize-Winning Lightbulb Tech That Could Save Millions of Lives”