Behind the scenes at an LED lighting lab

“A dozen years ago, people couldn’t spell LED,” recalls Steve Lester, the chief technology officer of LED chip developer Bridgelux, in an interview with me at the company’s R&D lab in Livermore, Calif. on Tuesday. But “nobody debates the future of (LED lighting) anymore.” For example, earlier this month at Lightfair International, one of the world’s largest lighting tradeshows, Lester recalls that there was only one booth that featured a non-LED product.

While LED lighting has caught on for commercial spaces, like spotlighting merchandise and for outdoor use like street lighting, it has yet to make its presence felt inside homes. That’s mainly because of its high, largely double-digit price tag, which leads to a much longer payback period, considering that consumers don’t keep lights on for as long as businesses do. However, despite a slower adoption by consumers, a McKinsey & Co. report last year projected that LED lighting could make up nearly 60 percent of the total lighting market by 2020.

Bridgelux has come a long way, too. The company, founded in 2002, has raised $230 million in venture capital and now employs over 250 people worldwide. It started off as an LED chip developer and shipped its first product in 2004. In 2009, it added a new line of products that takes a bunch of chips – each of which is a tiny, roughly 1-millimeter square – and packages them into what it calls an array. Since then, it’s further packaged the arrays into modules for sale as well (Bridgelux’s customers take the modules and add more components to create the light bulb or lighting fixture that you can buy in store). Bridgelux’s LED products are used in a variety of settings, from a Sheraton hotel in Korea to department stores in Switzerland to a YMCA in Idaho.

The company is spearheading a technology transition to use silicon as the substrate on top of which it grows the gallium-nitride for making the LED chips. Bridgelux has also teamed up with Toshiba and last week the two companies announced they had solved some key challenges for making the silicon wafer a good substitute, such as minimizing cracks in silicon and getting a uniform wavelength distribution across the gallium-nitride layer, Lester said. Solving these problems means Bridgelux and Toshiba believe they could mass produce LED chips using silicon wafers to get the same performance as chips that traditionally rely on sapphire wafers.

Next up, Toshiba, which has made an undisclosed investment in Bridgelux, will start pilot production this year, and the two companies expect to start selling LED products with silicon inside during the first half of 2013, Lester said. Bridegelux currently hires contract manufacturers in China and Taiwan to make its sapphire-based products.

Check out the photos from my tour of the lab: