Efficacy, power and costs of high power LEDs have now reached levels that make them attractive in general lighting applications.
The luminous efficacy of a light source is the ratio between the emitted luminous flux and the amount of the absorbed energy to transmit it. It is expressed in lumen/watt (lm/W), where the lumen is the measure unit of the luminous flux. However, the lumen is based on the subjective perception of light by the average human vision, corresponding to a particular curve inside the visible spectrum. To put it simply, a standard incandescent light emits radiation both inside and outside the visible spectrum. The radiations emitted in the infrared and in the ultraviolet do not contribute to our perception of brightness. A light source will have a higher luminous efficacy as much as it will be able to emit in a spectrum suitable for the human vision.
The LED technology has made significant progress on the emitted power front. Today standard high power LED are available in 1, 3 and 5 watt, and multi-chip emitters are becoming available that push LED power towards the 15 watt. But above all high power LED have ten times more efficacy than the incandescent sources. Every serious manufacturer offers high brightness LEDs with minimum luminous efficacies well above 80 lm/W. Nowadays 100 lm/W minimum luminous efficacies are quickly becoming the norm for white light.
To quickly illustrate the point, a 60 watt standard light bulb, with a source efficacy of 15 lm/W, produces a luminous flux of 60 x 15 = 900 lumens. A light source built with nine 1 watt high power LEDs, with a luminous efficacy of 100 lm/W will produce the same luminous flux, but will use only a power of 9 watt instead of the 60 watt of the standard light bulb.
For a more accurate comparison between different lighting systems we must take into account the entire system that produces the luminous flux:
- Source luminous efficacy (lm/W): it is the primary luminous characteristic of the light source, and varies according to the given technology.
- Electrical efficiency (%): it defines the incurred losses to adapt the standard electrical source to the need of the considered technology. For example, incandescent lamps are directly connected to the power line without any adjustment. This is not the case for other technologies such as the fluorescent lamps, which require ballasts with 60-70% efficiency. Similarly, an inverter for compact fluorescent lamps has an efficiency of 80-90%, while an AC/DC driver suitable for LEDs can have an efficiency higher than 90%.
- Fixture efficiency (%): standard incandescent and fluorescent light sources radiate in almost all directions and require reflectors and diffusers to shape the light beam for the required application. These systems have an efficiency which is usually estimated between 30 and 50%. By comparison, light emissions from LEDs are inherently directional, and 95% efficiency can be assumed.
Taking into account the entire chain, the efficacy of incandescent lamps will be as low as 7 lm/W, whereas fluorescent will achieve 38 lm/W and high power LEDs reach 76 lm/W. A better evaluation of the electrical power necessary to produce the 900 lumens would give 128 watts in the case of incandescent lamps, 23.8 watt for fluorescent fixtures and 11.8 watts for LEDs. A significant energy saving!