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Blue LEDs: the Nobel Prize winner that could light the world

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Light bulb

When you hear about the annual Nobel Prize in Physics, it is generally quite hard to figure out what invention or discovery the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the prize to. “Groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene” or “contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence” are not what an average citizen normally comes across in daily life.

This year is different. Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded for the invention of a “light to illuminate the world”, a blue light-emitting diode (LED). The blue LED technology, as a complement to the already existing red and green LED, allows white efficient light.

In practice, this is what is behind your new lamp at home, the street lighting in some of our cities, the LCD screens of televisions, the lighting of your next Christmas tree, and, and oh yes, the flashlight of the camera of your smart phone.

LED lighting is not a new invention – LEDs have been around in commercial uses for a while. But only in the last few years have they started to really become a mainstream technology that is improving the lives of people and help reducing our impact on the planet. A LED lamp can illuminate our house with 80% less energy use than a normal incandescent light bulb and at the same time can last 25 times longer.

If you consider that about 20% of the world’s electricity consumption is used for lighting, can you imagine what kind of positive impact a full transition to LEDs could have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource use?

Lighting all corners

Also, LED lamps are a perfect solution to provide light to people and communities who do not have access to the electricity grid. As their electricity use is very limited, they are a perfect match to local renewable technology, such as solar power, and could improve the living standards of over 1.5 billion people in the most poor and rural areas of the world, as the awarding committee has noted.

LED lighting is one of the technologies that can greatly contribute to the transition towards a more sustainable energy system that respects the limited resources of our planet and is in line with the imperative of stopping dangerous climate change. The prize, therefore, truly rewards an invention that brings great benefits to the mankind, as Nobel’s will specified.

In addition, we also like to think that this Nobel Prize is an acknowledgement of the multiple benefits of reducing energy demand through energy efficiency and a call for action to policy makers to do more in this field. Energy efficiency, not only in the lighting sector, still faces many barriers and needs to be promoted and supported to make it happen in the practice.

Minimum energy efficiency standards that phase out inefficient lighting solutions and promote LED technology need to be generalized around the world. Buildings with very low heat and cooling demand need to become the norm.

Technology innovation is often very much needed start to provide solutions that benefit mankind, but commitment to make them mainstream is also crucial. Let’s hope that our leaders follow the example of the Nobel committee and start truly rewarding energy efficiency policy in their work!

Arianna Vitali Roscini is the Policy Officer for Energy Conservation at WWF’s European Policy Office. She is based in Brussels.

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