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  • Detonation: Light Technology

Detonation: Light Technology

Tech Editor's Column

John Lehenbauer
Nov 14, 2016
Photographers: John Lehenbauer
Modern technology is pretty amazing. We carry around phones that are more powerful than computers we had only a few years ago, and the cellular devices have more functions than most of us will ever figure out how to use. When I think about where technology might be in 10 years, it is mind boggling to think that microcomputers and nanobots may become commonplace in our lives.
Electric lighting is a technology that continues to evolve since its introduction more than 100 years ago. In the last decade, the light-emitting diode (LED) has significantly changed lighting as we know it. The traditional lightbulb and fluorescent tube are becoming obsolete. LED technology is taking over everything from car headlights to TV screens. I can remember not too long ago when an LED was the simple red or green blinking light on the front of a computer console.
There seem to be an infinite number of uses for LEDs. There is also a virtually unlimited amount of hues they can emit, and they can be made in almost any size, shape, or form. Other attributes that make the diode very appealing compared to the traditional incandescent bulb are its compact size, power efficiency, and longer lifespan. These characteristics have not gone unnoticed by the automotive, truck, and aftermarket industry.
We have all seen the headlights, lightbars, and foglights that use white LEDs, but when the LED first came on the market such colors as red, yellow, and green were the only options to choose. So they were used for taillights, marker lights, and accessory lighting for different vehicles. The reason why the colored diodes were produced first is because they were much easier and cheaper to make. The diode chips used to produce white light are much more complex. Do you remember learning in school that white light is a combination of all the colors in the visible spectrum combined? Having to balance those colors is what makes the white LEDs more expensive and difficult to produce.
It did not take engineers long to remedy any problems they were having with developing a chip to produce white light. The first use of the chips was in auxiliary lighting and retrofit bulbs. These first lights were not always the brightest and would many times become intermittent, then just give up without any warning. As the technology got better, the chips produced light that was brilliant and crisp, as well as reliable.
As innovations continued, the cost to produce LEDs came down and their usage exploded. LEDs started being used everywhere in the truck world. Much of that was due to the aftermarket lighting industry, which created chips that could be used in a broad range of applications (off-road lights, foglights, headlights, and accessory lighting).
To get an idea of how much LED lighting has progressed, especially on vehicles, a 52-inch LED lightbar that is rated at 300 watts can produce 30,000 lumens of light from 100 3-watt lighting chips, drawing about 20 amps of power. In order for a halogen light to produce 30,000 lumens, it would take approximately 15 100-watt bulbs, each drawing 8.3 amps for a total of 124 amps. The 110-amp alternator that comes on most trucks is not able to handle that amount. An LED lightbar is efficient enough that you can run two of them without putting undue stress on the charging system. That is a lot of light.
The ever-expanding popularity of LED lights has created a lot of competition among manufacturers. This competition has been the catalyst for companies developing new innovations (better housings for cooling, brighter light with less draw, and better projection patterns to fully utilize the light). Great examples of forward thinking are the dual-function lightbars. While these bars look normal, they also feature a combination of amber and white diodes, improving visibility when driving conditions change—one light to do the job of two, and changing the color is as easy as flipping a switch.
With manufacturers trying to outdo each other, LED technology continues to rapidly expand. It won’t be long before LEDs take over in the automotive and truck world. They will be standard on every new vehicle, from the headlights to taillights—and everything in between. In just a few years, incandescent lights will be a thing of the past. Heck, most people probably won’t even remember what they were.

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