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Editorial | July 2015

R.I.P. ´Edison´ Incandescent Bulb

´Well, I´m not a scientist, I´m an inventor,´ thus was Thomas Alva Edison quoted by his private secretary, AO Tate. Even today, Edison´s name is synonymous with innovation, and among his large number of patents, stands out the electric light bulb-which has not only been embedded in human existence, but also come to symbolise that brilliant flash of breakthrough thinking from an inspired genius, traditionally associated with the inventive act.

Some bright ideas are before their time, but for some others, the time has come to fade into the past. Who could have imagined even 20 years back that Edison´s device for electric illumination would be today, almost consigned to the pages of history in the USA, Europe, China, and even Latin American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela. And, who could have prophesied that such a disruptive change would come in the shape of LEDs.

The basic technology of incandescent bulbs has not changed for 130 years, as they continue to convert most electrical energy into heat, and the rest, thankfully, into light. As cost of electrical energy increased, it was only a matter of time that intellectuals focused on finding an alternative and efficient source of man-made light. Thus came florescent lights, followed by CFLs, and now, everything is going to be swamped by LEDs.

Cut to India: The country still has around 700 million ´Edison´ bulbs in use and LED bulbs reportedly account for only Rs 3,000 crore of the Rs 13,000 crore lighting business. But things are changing fast! For example, this year, it is expected that, India will mark the death of 100 watt bulbs, as production for the same, as news reports suggest, will stop by the end of 2015. Going further, 60 and 40 watt bulbs will also run out of production by 2016 and 2017, respectively. At this rate, needless to say, the old-fashioned source of light will be all but gone by 2020, and makers are already mourning the imminent death of incandescent bulbs, indicating a major shift underway.

The change, which started slowly in 2008-09, with the introduction of the CFL, through the intervention named Bachat Lamp Yojana is turning out to be a big boon for none other than the disruptor called, LED. The ripples of CFLs are growing into waves of LEDs, and further, as performance improves and costs tumble, we suspect that it will likely turn into a Tsunami. While LEDs made an initial entry into higher-income climate-conscious households, in a price-conscious country like ours with millions of low income families, a big phase-out of the cheap ´yellow´ bulb needed a really big push. And that is now happening with a massive government order for LED bulbs for 100 cities.

LED lighting is indeed a unique source of light, almost in every way we look at it. It lasts longer, consumes far less energy, emits less heat and also gives more light. It is this unique combination of features which has made LED lighting so popular. It has something for everyone; the householder is happy with lower electricity bills, the engineer is happy with its longer life, the architect has to contend with lesser heat input when calculating air-conditioning load, the environmentalist is happy because it means less CO2, and even the Government is happy because everybody using LED means good demand side management.

Lighting in India, which used to consume 18-20 per cent of the national power generation is now already using only 10-12 per cent of the total power generated, news reports estimate. With the happiness all around, there is more good news for prospective LED buyers as prices come down and improve its viability. To sum it up, if we presume a time traveller from a hundred years ago were to visit a common Indian home today, much of the technology would be completely alien to him. But on discovering a light bulb, he might say with some sense of comfort and familiarity, ´Ah! Here´s something I know.´ But, if that visitor was to come back again in 10 years, the fruit of Thomas Edison´s bright idea might have vanished by then, and might have found a coveted corner in a museum.

Sumit Banerjee
Chairman, Editorial Advisory Board

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