LEDs score in proficiency, not political points

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By John Bartlit

Words take on a cultural aura. In Spanish, all nouns have a gender. Everything is either masculine or feminine, but neither rhyme nor reason can tell which.

Would you guess the Spanish word for “necktie” is male or female? Even though neckties are in the men’s wear department, the word for necktie is “la corbata,” clearly feminine. You will do no better at guessing the gender of Spanish words for dress, book or window (masculine, masculine, feminine).

The custom that every noun has a gender grew long ago in other lands. The U.S. today is working on a novel twist. We think every noun has a political flavor.

Objects get tagged as liberal or conservative. People, things and concepts are assigned to be one or the other, but not in-between. For instance, the noun “government” is liberal, with all the irrelevance of linking “necktie” and feminine. The word “commerce” is conservative, with equal illogic.

“Soldier” is conservative. “Green” is liberal. “Hybrid” is liberal. “Snowfall” is conservative. “Hurricane” is liberal, and so on.

How do such things happen? For another angle on word connotations, let’s look at the little technical marvels called LEDs.

LEDs are “light-emitting diodes.” Diodes have no politics. The small lamps use selected semiconductor materials, with just the right impurities, to give the color of light we want. A small voltage of two to three volts lights the lamp.

Semiconductors are best known for being the “brains” in computers. In LEDs, special impurities are added to let electrons flow and help us in new ways.

If the semiconductor is aluminum gallium arsenide, the LED emits red light. If we choose an LED of indium gallium nitride, we get blue light. Aluminum gallium phosphide gives green.

So which tag should apply to LEDs: liberal or conservative? To know, we need to hear more of the story.

The science of LEDs traces to 1907. Their history began to move from the laboratory into commerce in 1962 and has found markets at a growing rate since 1968. Prices have dropped steadily as new designs and markets expand usage, yet old-style light bulbs still remain cheaper.

LEDs are better than incandescent bulbs where an LED’s advantages fit well with the need. The strong points of an LED are:

• efficiency — the power used produces mainly light, without wasting most of the energy in heat; it has five to six times higher efficiency;

• long life, tolerates cycling on/off – like a computer, not a white-hot light bulb, it has years of life;

• ruggedness – it has no glass shell or fragile filament to break;

• an array of LEDs has more uniform brightness across it than a single bulb;

• no color filter is needed; an LED makes its own color;

• it wears out by slowly getting dimmer; it does not fail all at once as a light bulb does;

Such factors make LEDs a good choice in traffic lights. A big city spends millions of tax dollars a year to power traffic lights. Constantly replacing burned out bulbs has high costs in trucks and labor and ties up traffic.

LED traffic lights made the news last year. The New Mexico Department of Transportation began to change traffic lights statewide to LEDs. The initial change-over will save taxpayers $500,000 a year in electricity costs.

Now for the troubled heart of it. Federal stimulus money was used to make the shift. We know liberal and conservative views of stimulus money are as far different as the sun and moon. Politics, ho!

But politics or no, some key aspects figure into the equation. LEDs save money in traffic lights in the long run, by the merits of semiconductors. So as a matter of course, the money that LEDs save goes back to taxpayers in lower outlays for energy and maintenance.

Well, nearly so. The savings produced with federal tax money go back to state and local taxpayers. If more states apply stimulus money to LED traffic lights, more of it is returned to taxpayers. Whichever way you slant your party choice, more money in citizen hands is good.

So are LEDs liberal or conservative? I don’t know. I hope you don’t know, either.   

If LEDs can avoid a political tag, their technical strengths can serve very well in more and more applications.