The L Prize: A Prize for Lighting Innovation

Lynne Kiesling

As authorized by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced the Bright Tomorrow Lighting competition, the L Prize (here’s the prize website). Cash prizes and other inducements for the development of solid state lighting to replace standard incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.

Rather like the Google Lunar X Prize, but with taxpayer money instead of private money.

Solid-state lighting is a big deal. The light is emitted from a block of semiconductor material instead of in a vacuum in a tube or by exciting a gas in a tube. If you have any LED lights, that’s an example of solid-state lighting. They use very little energy per lumen of light, and they emit very little waste heat.

There are a couple of academic research centers working on solid-state lighting, and there are some companies that offer solid-state lighting. Mass-market solid-state lighting is not there yet.

I have my concerns about government research funding crowding out private research funding, particularly when we get in this murky area that is moving toward commercialization research. I also have my doubts about the assertion in the DOE’s solid-state lighting strategy statement that “its unique attributes drive the need for a coordinated approach that guides technology advances from laboratory to marketplace”.

However, if the alternative to this kind of policy is command-and-control technology standards and building standards, then this prize-based policy is more likely to generate effective, commercializable solid-state lighting. At least it stipulates the performance objectives without stipulating how the technology is to achieve those objectives (other than the technologies having to be solid-state).

I think that’s the real on-the-ground realpolitik comparison to make, although I also think that we should not ignore the crowding out question (especially as fuel prices and electricity prices rise).


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