Why the Blue LED Deserved a Nobel Prize—Don’t Forget Its Impact on the Health Sector
This year three men shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the blue LED (light-emitting diode). Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura developed the third color in the LED spectrum, after red and green. And with the invention of blue came the ability to create the full white light spectrum. For those of us that don’t spend our free time understanding how light works, LEDs are pretty cool for a number of reasons—not just because they save the lives and brains of infants with severe jaundice.
First, LEDs last much, much longer than traditional bulbs because they don’t use a filament to generate light, which is what “burns out” in most incandescent bulbs. In some cases they can burn bright for 10–20 years, even with daily use.
Second, LEDs are super-efficient, which means more of the energy consumed takes on the form of light, not heat. That means LEDs can produce the same light intensity using way less energy.
Last, LEDs can be finely tuned. It’s possible to get LEDs that produce light in as narrow a wavelength range as five nanometers. If your application has a specific wavelength requirement (or you just happen to be very particular), you can obtain LEDs that are near-perfect.
Add in the rapid drop in LED prices and it’s easy to see that we experiencing a pretty radical shift in how our civilization generates light. The media has focused on the use of blue LEDs in smartphone screens and HDTV displays and, while we love our tablets, we’re grateful to the LED inventors for a less-well-publicized reason.
The invention of blue LEDs is enabling millions of more babies to be more effectively treated for severe jaundice.
D-Rev’s Brilliance unit treating a baby.
Treating jaundice is easy—it requires shining blue light onto a baby’s skin. Severe jaundice (or hyperbilirubinemia—too much bilirubin, a chemical in the blood) can occur anytime in the first one to two weeks of life. In severe cases the bilirubin can build up in the infant’s brain and cause irreversible brain damage, or even death. The invention of blue LEDs impacted not only the effectiveness of phototherapy units, but also the supply chain models in which they operate.
First, the extended life of LEDs means they essentially never have to be replaced. In the case of the LEDs we use for Brilliance, the latest industry testing indicates they will provide light for well over 120,000 hours (almost 14 years if they are NEVER turned off). Before blue LEDs were available jaundice was treated using florescent tube bulbs. In the poorest regions of the world, this is still the case. Fluorescent (CFL and tube) bulbs burn out every three to five months depending on usage. A typical phototherapy unit uses five to six fluorescent bulbs to product the necessary light intensity to treat a baby. The best bulbs to use are known as “special blue” and produce more blue light than their “bright white” cousins. Those special blue bulbs are hard to come by, however, and provide a procurement challenge for many hospitals. White bulbs are often used when special blue bulbs cannot be found but don’t provide the same level of intensity. Not to mention all this bulb-changing becomes expensive. Based on interviews with purchasing officers and doctors in our target regions, a hospital will pay between $600 and $2,000 USD per year to replace bulbs.
Second, more efficient lamps mean more energy savings for hospitals, translating to lower operating costs and lighter burdens on backup energy systems like generators and solar systems. Also, traditional devices generate quite a bit of heat, which can make the management of a newborns body temperature challenging in resource-poor settings.
And last, the ability to refine the specific wavelength of a given LED to the blue spectrum has made them perfect for the treatment of jaundice. The American Academy of Pediatrics determined that 430-490nm is the optimal “blue” range for treating severe jaundice—that particular color of light breaks down bilirubin more efficiently than any other color. Nearly all modern devices are able to incorporate these narrow-wavelength LEDs. Anyone working in phototherapy has seen the rise of blue LED devices. LED devices are now treating millions of babies around the world, saving them from the potential life-threatening effects of neonatal jaundice. We are working to extend the reach to the poorest populations with Brilliance.
So, thank you and congratulations to the three professors who developed this technology. Your hard work enables us to do our work and we truly appreciate it.