Typical light-emitting diodes
By Cho Jin-seo
Two weeks ago, a South Korean company offered a $1-million bounty for a weird purpose. The company, Fawoo Technology, promised to pay $100,000 each to whoever finds it a local partner to sell its light-emitting diode (LED) products in one of 10 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Germany, Russia, and India. Moreover, the firm promised to give 1 percent of its revenue to be earned in those nations for the next seven years to the headhunters, whether it is an individual or an organization.
The surprising offer, called ``10-1-7 project,'' drew big attention. So far more than 5,000 people from all over the world have downloaded the application form from its Web site, the firm said.
``It will enable us to make inroads into large-size foreign markets faster and more aggressively,'' said CEO Yoo Young-ho. ``There is no apparent leader in the LED lighting market, yet, so it was the right time to launch the 10-1-7 project.''
The company has reasons to be so aggressive and so confident. Its sales rose by 64 percent last year thanks to large export contracts to Japan. Its stock price also jumped almost five times in the past six months, despite the downturn in the stock market.
If entrepreneurship and technologies are the engines of growth, worries on global warming are a tail wind that further propels the LED industry. This type of lamp consumes much less energy and lasts longer than conventional incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs, meaning they also result in less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced at power plants.
So, many governments in the world have begun to set their eye on the use of LEDs in public and private spaces. According to market research firm iSuppuli, the LED market will expand to $11 billion in 2010 from $6.3 billion in 2006, and most of the growth will come from household, office and street lighting, automobile lights and back-light units of TV and computer screens.
South Korea is no exception in the LED fever. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy plans to raise the portion of LED lighting in houses, offices and on streets to 30 percent by 2015, which it calculates will reduce carbon dioxide emission by 5.8 million tons from today's level. This ambitious plan was adopted by President-elect Lee Myung-bak as one of his three major policies in fighting global warming. (The other two are renewable energies and nuclear generation.)
``It is inevitable (for Korea) to use more LED lamps in order to meet the carbon dioxide emission guideline of the Bali roadmap,'' Fawoo's Yoo said.
Steve Job's New Favorite
An LED is an old-fashioned device, though all the recent hype makes it look like a next-generation technology. In the early 20th century, several scientists noted that certain semiconductor materials produced light ― thus coined the name light-emitting diode. General Electric was the first to make the first practical LED in 1962.
LEDs have been widely used in many applications such as indicator lights on machines, electronic clocks, displays and signs. Many traffic lights on street today are also made of hundreds of tiny LEDs. Most recently, lighting companies began to sell LED fixtures for residential and other illumination uses.
In many ways, LEDs are more efficient and pro-environment than other types of lighting. A typical LED bulb can last 50,000 hours, while an incandescent bulb can last for only 1,000 hours and a fluorescent bulb about 12,000 hours. It consumes only one fifth of electricity to emit the same amount of light than an incandescent bulb. Moreover, it does not have poisonous materials such as lead and mercury.
What signaled the incoming dominancy of LED lighting was this year's MacWorld expo in San Francisco last month. For the past few years, the annual event of Apple has introduced a number of industry-inspiring products such as the iPod and iPhone. This year, what Apple CEO Steve Jobs came up with in his keynote speech was an ultra-thin laptop PC called MacBook Air, which uses an LED-backlit screen.
Laptop computers and other devices that use LCD (liquid-crystal display) screens need a light source. So far, fluorescent lamps have been placed behind the screen to give the needed light to the color filters. To make thinner screens, manufacturers such as Apple began to use tiny LED bulbs to light up the screen.
There are technological challenges in doing so. As the LED bulbs are usually placed on the bottom edge of the screens, it is therefore critical how to spread the light beams evenly into the surface, making it look like a single bright panel. Makers use various methods in doing so, and one of most common technologies is to use a specially designed acrylic plate to disperse the light.
About 5 percent of LCDs were built with LED light source last year, but the portion will increase to about 20 percent this year, says an industry expert.
While Apple's new MacBook is shedding new light on the LED industry, other noticeable changes are taking place on the streets.
Last November, a southern Italian village of Torraca proclaimed itself as the world's first ``LED city.'' The town installed 700 LED street lamps that are powered by photovoltaic panels, making it a self-sustainable system.
South Korean towns and regional governments are fast catching up. Along with many other towns, Bucheon city has replaced its old halogen street lamps on the city hall plaza with Fawoo's LED bulbs. The new lamps have six times the life expectancy of halogen lamps, and consume about 28,000 won of electricity per year, compared to 85,000 won. Such a low maintenance cost, the firm says, is enough to offset the hefty price of 160,000 won per lamp in a few years, compared to 40,000 won of halogen lamps.
Using LEDs, Busan city is trying to add some artistic touches on simple lighting. The city government is spending 2 billion won in decorating the Songjeong beach to lure tourists from Korea and abroad. The proposed image shows hundreds of LED lamps blinking gently from beachside wood like a swarm of fireflies.
The only problem with LEDs is price. According to Lee of Samsung, an LED light bulb is priced at around 30,000 won, about six times the price of fluorescent bulbs.
``The economies of scale can lower the price,'' said Lee Jun-ho, public relations manager of Samsung Electro-Mechanics. ``We will start to have cost-efficient LED light bulbs from this year that can match the economy of fluorescent bulbs.''