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The Nobel LED’s ‘great benefit to mankind’? Light for developing world

Photons + LEDs = Accessible, Affordable, Safe Light: This small solar panel powers LED bulbs inside a home with no other access to electricity. Incandescent bulbs would require much more power.

In case you forgot the purpose of the Nobel Prize: It ‘rewards an invention of greatest benefit to mankind.’ Those are the words of the Nobel Foundation itself. They date back to Alfred Nobel, the 19th century Swedish industrialist, chemist and inventor of dynamite who willed the Prize a year before his 1896 death.

With such lofty criteria, it’s easy to see why the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences granted the Nobel Prize in Physics last week to blue LED inventors Shuji Nakamura, Isamu Nakasaki and Hiroshi Amano.

When the three of them in the early 1990s put the finishing touches on the blue light emitting diode, they paved the way for LED light bulbs that radically slash energy consumption compared to traditional incandescent bulbs, thus auguring nothing less than great reductions in electricity production and all the attendant C02-linked environmental doom-and-gloom. Not a bad contriubtion to humanity at all.

But their invention has provided even more immediate ‘great benefits to mankind.’

As a World Bank group called Lighting Africa notes, the low energy LED bulb, in conjunction with solar panels, is helping to light up homes in Africa where over a billion people do not have access to conventional electricity.

LED bulbs work well in tandem with solar panels, whereas incandescents would not, precisely because the LEDs require only about 20 percent of the power. Thus, smaller and more affordable solar panels attached to the roof of a hut can provide lighting. Many schemes and companies have emerged to sell LED/solar panel kits at affordable prices; many of them also include sockets for charging mobile phones.

It seems to be working. Lighting Africa, which is helping to finance the growth through its private-sector investment arm, International Finance Corp., says that some 28.5 million people on the continent are now using solar lighting.

 It also claims that nearly 5 percent of the continent’s population is tapping the technology, up from 1 percent in 2009.

Nevermind that 28.5 million people is closer to 2.6 percent of the population than it is to 5, (perhaps something got lost in the numbers). The point is is that the solar/LED combination is heading in the right direction.

‘At this rate we are confident that sustainable energy for all in the next 15 years is indeed achievable as the market for modern solar lights doubles every year,’ says Itotia Njagi, Lighting Africa’s program manager.

 A story on the NPR website  calls it the developing world’s ‘illumination revolution,’ noting that, ‘for a growing proportion of the more than a billion people who live without reliable sources of electricity, LED lights, in tandem with solar panels, have been a godsend.’ It describes progress in South Asia as well as in Africa, where the LEDs are also replacing unhealthy and potentially dangerous lighting sources like kerosene lamps, firewood and candles. 

Great benefit to mankind? Box ticked! LEDs are certainly off to a good start anyway. It will be important to keep up the good work that in the bigger picture has only just begun to make a difference to the lives of millions but potentially billions of people in the developing world.

Not everyone agrees that the blue LED inventors should have received the great honour. For example, the decision (although not blue LEDs themselves) rankled Nick Holonyak, who blazed the trail that eventually led to blue, by inventing red LEDs with his team at General Electric back in 1962.

Whether or not you see eye-to-eye with the Nobel decision, it’s hard to dispute that for millions of people who have been living in the dark or by the light of hazardous kerosene, the blue LED has been absolute dynamite.

Photo is from Azuri Technologies