Monday, October 10, 2005

Light Up the World

It was the reference to Nepal that caught my eye. I was browsing through an old Reader's Digest in Garth's old bedroom at his mom's farm. His trip to the other side of the world is less than a week away now, and Nepal is very much on my mind. Here was a story with plenty of now-familiar references: the Annapurna hiking circuit, a Sherpa guide, Pokhara. Yet what held my attention was the project that grew out of Dave Irvine-Halliday's unscheduled hiking trip. Dave visited his guide's family, and wished he could see their faces as they visited in the dark, smoky home. He later looked in the window of a school classroom and wondered how the children could see to read. When Dave got back to the University of Calgary, he found his lab technician John Shelley experimenting with LEDs. They tracked down a white LED and developed a durable, low cost lamp with very low energy consumption. This lamp, combined with a battery and a household-level renewable power source such as a pedal powered generator or a solar panel, forms the basis for Light Up the World (LUTW).
Light Up The World Foundation brings ultra-efficient, durable and near permanent White Light Emitting Diodes (WLED) lighting solutions powered by renewable energy to the world's poor in ecologically sensitive and remote rural areas.
Why haven't I heard of this before?

The more I thought about it, the more ideas came. I have some LED Christmas lights, and Garth just got a tiny LED flashlight. Why not LED household lights for energy conservation? I admit this is a somewhat discouraging thought, since I just bought a dozen compact fluorescents to make my home lighting more efficient. Constantly changing to something more efficient strikes me as... inefficient. But anyway...

My first thought was that on alternating current, LED lights might flicker. I had noticed a strobe effect with my Christmas lights when the light string was swinging across my field of vision. Then I remembered Wayne's article about gradually isolating various appliances from utility power. LED lighting could be very effective on a DC system powered with solar panels, couldn't it? The low power consumption would be a good fit for the solar, and the DC supply would be a good fit for the LEDs. For me, this underscores what a powerful idea Wayne has. If we get away from standardizing everything to 120V AC, not only will we find new ways to apply renewable energy, but we could also discover side benefits such as backup for service interruptions, isolation of sensitive electronics from surges on large power systems, ingenious storage solutions, and probably many more benefits that haven't occurred to anyone yet.

In the meantime, I did some Googling, and concluded that LED household lights are indeed available, with some limitations, but flicker doesn't seem to be one of them. I am assuming that it's probably eliminated by the circuitry built into an LED "bulb" (which is actually an array of diodes on a base that fits a standard light socket).

The limitations for household LED lights seem to be brightness (the brightest I found was approximately equal to a 40 W incandescent) and beam angle (generally quite narrow even with arrays of diodes plus lenses and reflectors). Currently LED lighting is advertised mainly for accent or task lighting. Now I feel better about my compact fluorescents, but who knows how fast things will change?

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