Nobel for LEDs: Award citation missed the most important point

Nobel for LEDs: Award citation missed the most important point

By Hugh Martin / Posted 10/07/2014 01:50:22 PM PDT

The award of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura is well deserved but for reasons going far beyond those the Nobel Committee has cited.

The citation reads, "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources."

We see the benefits of this invention in the bright headlights of new cars and in the white (rather than yellow) streetlights being installed in San Jose and in cities around the world.

And also thanks to these same LED lights, our household electric bills can drop dramatically. At the same time our cooling expenses are also reduced because LEDs, unlike conventional light bulbs, don't waste energy by generating a lot of heat. LEDs can cut energy costs by as much as 80 percent.

But for those of us in the technology industries, there's a stunning additional benefit of LEDs. They run on the same voltage (5 volts, DC) that computers, networking equipment and sensors use.

That means the LED lighting revolution has enhanced the work and capabilities of Silicon Valley.

This opportunity is analogous to the revolution that occurred in television programming and services when television went to digital technology.

Since the early days of our conversion to LEDs, this meant we could use computers to control the lights, making them still more energy efficient. We could turn them off in some locations and keep them on in others based on human activity.

At the Westfield Valley Fair Mall in San Jose, drivers can move through the parking garage and the lights will come on when necessary. With old-tech lighting, this would be difficult to accomplish. With LEDs, it's easily done. Not only can we dim the LED lights, when appropriate, we can make them change color.

The next step has been to combine LED lighting fixtures with sensors, using the same power sources that run the lights.

My own company, Sensity Systems, places in its lights sensors for temperature, humidity, pollution, radiation and other environmental conditions.

We can detect earthquakes and gun shots by installing sensors for them. We can detect bioterror contaminants. We can provide surveillance with light-mounted video cameras. The LED lights save so much money it becomes quite economical to put intelligence on every light pole.

Not only do companies like Sensity find new uses for LED lights, but even the big networking companies are finding a new market.

Each light is what the networkers call a "node." It has its own Internet address. The data it collects needs to be transmitted and distributed to the people who need it.

And, in the best tradition of Silicon Valley, small companies and individual developers are turning out hardware for the new, networked lighting systems and software to manage and analyze the data from the sensors.

So congratulations to Professors Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura. Not only have you invented bright, efficient lights, you've also helped Silicon Valley reinvent itself--yet again.

Hugh Martin, a serial entrepreneur, now is CEO of Sensity Systems in Sunnyvale. He wrote this for this newspaper.