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Nobel Winning LEDs Could Cause Trouble For Nature

Oct 14, 2014 04:46 PM EDT
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What is the Nobel Prize ?

Just last week the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award scientists Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura the Nobel Prize in physics for their invention of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) - the technology that allowed the world to usher in a new age of efficient white lighting.

However, researchers have found that these revolutionary LEDs do not come without flaws of their own - namely they serve light pollution that affects animal differently than traditional incandescent bulbs.

That's at least according to a new study published in the journal Ecological Applications, from the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

LEDs have been available to the scientific community for decades, but their applications as a lighting source was limited simply because they could not emit white light. The advent of the blue LED changed all that, finally allowing for white lamps that could last an estimated 100 times longer than traditional bulbs at a minuscule fraction of the energy cost.

However, true to their name, blue LEDs emit a significant amount of short wavelength "blue" light which, according to study author Stephen Pawson, can influence the behavior of animals.

"For example, insects have specific photoreceptors for blue light," he told the Smithsonian in an email. "Thus large-scale adoption of 'white' lighting is likely to increase the impacts of nighttime lighting on all species sensitive to 'blue' light." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay) Nocturnal insects have always been drawn to light. But the allure of a traditional light-bulb reportedly pales in comparison to the draw of LED light.

According to the study, the "white" LEDs we see lighting our world today are actually blue light diodes that have been covered with a phosphor coating that alters the light into longer wavelengths. This creates an intense and pure-white light for human eyes, but insects and other animals may not be fooled.

In a series of comparative tests, the researchers found that the LEDs attracted 48 percent more nocturnal invertebrates than less-modern lighting. They had hoped that altering the intensity of the LEDs or their light-bending coating could help cull this attraction, but it proved not to be the case. The creatures just kept rushing into the light - disrupting their nocturnal lives and making them easy pickings for nearby predators.

Pawson and his colleague Martin Bader theorize that as LEDs become increasingly popular, urban areas might also find themselves with more of a pest problem, potentially even drawing invasive species to ports and commercial shipping boats.

Still, it's hard to argue that these problems can outweigh the benefits of LEDs. The world currently spends a fourth of all its electricity on lighting alone. The incredibly efficient white LED could not only cut these costs, but arguably take lighting off the grid entirely, as an entire home can easily be lit with LEDs on solar power.

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