Nick Holonyak Jr., had a bright idea.

This American engineer invented the LED (light emitting diode) in 1962 while working for General Electric (GE).

LEDs are a miracle of modern ingenuity, and definitely a breakthrough in lighting technology. It was way back in 1879 when Thomas Edison (who coincidentally founded GE) created the first commercial light bulb. This incandescent light bulb faithfully served us for many years, but had quite a few drawbacks.

Incandescent bulbs produce light by using electricity to heat a metal filament until it is white hot and produces light. However, about 90 per cent of the energy produced is released not as light, but as heat, thus making them very inefficient.

Next came the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), which in some ways was an improvement, but still far from perfect. CFLs work by sending electric current between electrodes at opposing ends of a gas containing tube. Ultraviolet light and heat is produced in this way and UV light is transformed to usable light when it strikes a phosphor (a solid material that emits light) coating on the inside to the bulb. 

While a bit more efficient (80 per cent lost as heat), it was not well regarded by consumers due to its flickery nature and undesirable light effects.

Luckily, Mr. Holonyak saw the light! His LED has been hailed as the future of lighting and for good reason. LEDs are semiconductor devices that produce visible light when electrical current passes through them. While a little heat is produced, it is absorbed in a heat sink so doesn’t hog (and waste) most of the energy produced like the others.

Interestingly, LEDs can’t directly produce white light. Instead they create red, blue or green light and either combine them to get white or use phosphor to create the light color we so desire. So what is so great about the LEDs?

They just might be the brightest bulb in the box! LEDs can be very bright, but it is hard to compare since LEDs are measured in lumens and other types of bulbs are measured in watts. Opinions vary, but one thing is certain — LEDs can only offer light in one direction, while the CFLs and incandescents shine all around (360 degrees).

LEDs’ claim to fame is their efficiency and long life. Estimates vary, but some sources suggest that these bulbs will cut energy use by 80 per cent over the conventional bulb. These bulbs also have an incredible life span of 25,000 hours. To break that down, they would last three years if you had them on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. More likely, one might use them six hours a day, which translates to 12 years from a single bulb. Some suggest that would be 25 times longer than those other bulbs.

If the LED-buying light bulb went off in everyone’s mind, the U.S. could make remarkable progress in energy efficiency and cost savings.  One estimate relates that if 49 million LED lights were installed in this country, we would save $675 million in energy costs. Switching to LEDs over the next 20 years would save $250 billion, avoid 1,800 million metric tons of carbon emissions and reduce energy consumption by 50 per cent.

But there is a dark side. LEDs are more expensive to purchase, although energy savings can make up the initial costs. And even though they don’t have mercury like CFCs, LEDs do contain arsenic, lead, nickel and other toxic compounds that may cause allergies and illness. This is an important thing to know to insure proper disposal when household LEDs finally go dark.

I recently chose LEDs for my house, and only time will tell if they will shed light on all of the mysteries of light bulb choices. And while the well-known proverb says that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, it seems that it’s also better to light a single LED than curse the electric company.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.