Light bulbs that bounce

Durable: Navy submarines and a fast-food chain test 10-year bulbs that contain light-emitting diodes.

September 25, 2004|By Jon Van | Jon Van,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

It's a problem that confronts every homeowner: There's always at least one light bulb that needs to be replaced - often in places that require a ladder.

For years, companies have worked to solve this vexing problem, but the bulbs have been expensive and often lacked durability.

But what if you could buy a bulb that will last 10 years, use about a tenth of the electricity and cost no more than three times that of a standard bulb? And it can bounce.

Jack Goeken thinks he has created just such a superbulb, and it's scheduled to hit the market this year with the backing of bulb giant Westinghouse Lighting Corp.

Already, the Navy is testing the technology in submarines, where a long-lasting bulb isn't just convenient - it's a necessity.

Powering this superbulb are light-emitting diodes. Crystals that can convert small amounts of electricity into bright points of light, LEDs are widely used in traffic signals and other specialized applications. They are also turning up as backlighting for high-end televisions and automobile headlights, and they are even used as a flash for cell phones with cameras.

Now, Goeken's Naperville, Ill., company plans to introduce an LED light bulb that is clad in plastic - not glass - and put them in everything from light sockets to signs that advertise fast food.

"I want to change the lighting business the same way I changed long-distance," Goeken said.

That's no idle boast.

Forty years ago Goeken started a company - Microwave Communications Inc., later called MCI - that triggered the breakup of AT&T's Bell System. After that Goeken developed a network of 10,000 computers enabling florists to wire long-distance orders. Then he built Airfone, the airplane-to-ground phone network.

But delivering LED light in the form of a light bulb that can screw into a standard fixture is unusual even for a field awash in smart people working on new products.

At Goeken's company - PolyBrite International Inc. - inventors discovered a way to take the light from a single LED and disperse it through a plastic ribbon to enhance the light's effect. After several years of work, Carl Scianna, PolyBrite's president, has packaged LEDs along with the electronics that power them in a plastic bulb-shaped product.

"In a few months we'll have our light bulbs on the market," he said.

While price varies with bulb type, Scianna said the Westinghouse LED bulbs will sell for no more than three times the price of comparable incandescent bulbs. With the durability, longer life and lower operating costs, the new bulbs are clearly superior, he said.

The technology behind the new bulbs may be complex, but that shouldn't matter to consumers, said Sandra Goeken, vice chairman of Goeken Group Corp., parent company to PolyBrite, and Jack Goeken's daughter.

"This is leading edge, but people don't have to understand it," she said. "We'll just sell it as a super-efficient light bulb that uses less electricity and lasts 10 years."

The first operating LED was created in 1962 by Nick Holonyak Jr. working in a General Electric Co. laboratory. Today Holonyak is a University of Illinois professor and continues working to improve LED technology.

Holonyak said it is not surprising that someone has found a way to package LEDs as a standard light bulb.

"I've been waiting to buy one," Holonyak said. "We've got a good spot in the basement where it can go."

PolyBrite's technology impressed G. Thomas Castino, retired chief executive at Underwriters Laboratories Inc., based in Northbrook, Ill.

"It's quite innovative," Castino said. "From a safety standpoint there are many advantages with the low-voltage and plastic bulb - people cut themselves on glass bulbs."

A standard incandescent bulb produces light by running electricity through a thin wire that glows, Castino said, and that can pose a hazard in some locales, such as oil well drilling rigs. LED-based lights don't carry the potential to spark an explosion in a combustible environment, he said.

A PolyBrite LED light was approved this year by the Navy for emergency use in disabled submarines. "Until now, we didn't have a reliable product that would remain lighted" under the extreme pressure conditions of a disabled sub, said Michael Holmes, a rescue project manager with the Navy.

Another kind of submarine - the sandwich variety - is also looking into PolyBrite's products for illuminating signs. Nick Pusta, a consultant to the Subway sandwich food chain, said he is setting up side-by-side comparisons between LED-illuminated signs and standard ones to determine if there is a financial advantage.

"It looks like we'll get 2 to 2.5 times the life out of LED signs compared to fluorescent signs," Pusta said. "I think the value proposition is going to be there. We're still testing."

The PolyBrite/Westinghouse launch of a new line of LED-based lighting products is part of a broad advance by the technology to take over functions long performed by incandescent or fluorescent lamps.

This summer, for example, Lumileds Lighting LLC, a Silicon Valley company, used LED automobile headlamps in an Audi displayed at the Detroit Auto Show. The firm expects LED-based headlights and taillights to become widely deployed in the next few years.

Lumileds also announced deals to place LED technology in cell phone cameras and big-screen liquid-crystal-display TV sets.

Increased LED brightness is one factor for the technology's growing popularity, said Mark Pugh, a Lumileds vice president, but other improvements are at least as important.

"A lot of work has gone into optimizing the overall optical system," he said.

PolyBrite's use of advanced plastics to enhance an LED's illumination potential is an excellent example of such optimization, said Castino, the retired UL president.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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