Light of a New Age

U of T engineering grads create the “most efficient light bulb in the world.”

Comments Off on Light of a New Age July 3, 2013
by Treena Hein

From left: U of T engineering graduates—Gimmy Chu, Tom Rodinger, Christian Yan—with their high-efficiency LED lightbulb, the NanoLeaf.

From left: U of T engineering graduates—Gimmy Chu, Tom Rodinger, Christian Yan—with their high-efficiency LED lightbulb, the NanoLeaf.

It was some time ago that the big global electrical product companies saw the “lighting” on the wall. The need for a greener light bulb – one that’s much more energy efficient
and lasts a long time but is still economical and environmentally-friendly to produce – was clear. Experienced teams at these gigantic companies set to work, with huge budgets at their disposal.

But a small, independent trio of engineers, all University of Toronto alumni, also took a stab at the problem – and have achieved astonishing levels of energy efficiency that surpass what anyone else has produced thus far. Meet Tom Rodinger, Gimmy Chu and Christian Yan, creators of the Nanoleaf light bulb, an LED lightbulb that its creators say is as bright as conventional bulbs but lasts much longer.

The Nanoleaf ’s journey began during the trio’s time as part of the University of Toronto “Blue Sky” solar car racing team. Their experience with the car’s electronics and circuitry gave them great familiarity with efficient circuit design. “We’ve all been really passionate about developing green energy products for the planet for a while,” says Chu. “Our current focus is in green energy products such as solar and LED technology.”

The bulb’s design features small LEDs mounted onto a folded PCB circuit board so that a bulb shape is achieved, and uses only 12 watts of electricity to produce the light output of a 100W bulb. It turns on instantly and will last for about 20 years. That’s about 30,000 hours of usage, which is equal to that of 30 incandescent bulbs or four compact fluorescent.

“Our signature product, the 12W NanoLeaf, produces 1600 lumens (133 Lm/W) which is hard to achieve with LED light bulbs,” Chu explains. “Some of the bigger brands have just started coming out with 1600 Lm bulbs, but they use much more electricity – 20W for the Sylvania and 23W for the Philips model.” The LED bulb that won the 2012 U.S. Department of Energy’s “L Prize” achieves only 93.4 Lm/W.

It gets better. “Many LED bulbs have the issue where, if used in an enclosed fixture, heat will cause the bulb to burn out within a few months,” says Chu. “These bulbs need a large heat sink to dissipate the heat.” The Nanoleaf solves this problem through over-temperature circuitry protection, so in a fully-enclosed fixture, it will automatically dim to prevent damage. It helps that the NanoLeaf also runs fairly cool compared to other LED light bulbs – yes, you can touch it while it’s on. U of T engineering grads create the “most efficient light bulb in the world.”

“Eventually we will pursue the Energy Star certification,” adds Chu. “At the moment, we’re focusing our efforts in some of the other required certifications for getting the product onto store shelves in various countries.”

The team hasn’t yet done the testing to see what extreme outdoor temperatures will do to the lifetime of the bulb, and therefore currently recommend it for indoor use only.
Support for the Nanoleaf has been impressive from the start. In January, the team used crowd-funding web site KickStarter to raise funds for production of a first batch, with a goal of $20,000. By March, they had generated over ten times that amount: $270,000 from over 5,700 backers all around the world.

“It was incredible for us to find so many like-minded people so supportive of our work, says Chu. “There’s still a constant stream of people placing pre-orders every day.” One of the most challenging aspects of the entire journey was the manufacturing.

“We needed to define a process where folding of the circuit board wouldn’t cause any damage to the circuitry,” Chu explains. “This has not been done by any other manufacturer before, but through making the initial batch of 5,000 bulbs, we are ironing out the issues and we’re confident we’ll have a process that can be expanded to a larger scale.”

Hammering out the design and manufacture was also challenging geographically. The three have lived in three different countries (Canada, the U.S. and China) for a while, and each do a lot of travelling, which made collaboration interesting.

“We had to constantly call each other across various time zones and plan trips to continue working on the project,” says Chu. “But we are a great team, and we each bring a specialty to the table. We’re all working day and night to make this product a success.”

While at U of T, the team members found inspiration in attending the Electrical & Computer Engineering program’s entrepreneur speaker series, where alumni come and talk about building their start-ups.

Coming full circle, Rodinger, Chu and Yan have been invited to be present next year. By then, they’ll be able to tell the next generation of engineering students how they worked to build a global distribution network and describe their work to launch other light bulb models, including one that is dimmable.

“Our goal with the NanoLeaf is to facilitate the global transition to LED lighting, and we’re on the way to reaching that goal,” says Chu. “It’s been a great ride so far.”