Tech Imitates Life: Fireflies Make Better Light Bulbs

While we often think we are clever designers, living things often meet or beat the best human designs. It is easy to forget that nature even has living lightbulbs, among them the firefly. Researchers from Penn State decided to compare how fireflies create light and found that they deal with a problem similar to LEDs. The insight may lead to an increase in efficiency for LEDs, which is currently about 50%.

The problem is that some light generated never gets out of the LED (or the firefly’s body). Some light inevitably reflects back into the device. One known mitigation for this is creating a tiny texture pattern on the LED surface which allows more light to escape. These are typically a V-shaped structure etched into the surface. This isn’t news to the firefly, however, which has similar structures on their lanterns as do some other light-generating animals (apparently glowing cockroaches are a thing). However, the organic structures differ from LED textures in an important way.

The firefly’s textured V’s are not symmetrical, instead they are lopsided with one leg of the V sloping at a different angle. Researchers think this allows both an increased surface area and increase in random angles of reflections which gives photons a second chance to escape.

Verified both with computer models and a nanoscale 3D printed prototype, the researchers found that they could produce LEDs with light extraction efficiencies of around 90%. When it comes to getting more light out of an LED, there are two factors: the quantum efficiency and the light extraction efficiency. The first factor measures how many electrons are converted into light and is already near its theoretical limit in modern devices. The other factor is the light extraction efficiency, which is what this work improves. The team has found that changing how crystalline sapphire is cut in the conventional LED manufacturing process can create the lopsided structures, so it is likely that this advance will be coming to an LED near you very soon.

Of course, even the worst LED tends to be a lot more efficient than an old incandescent bulb. Even though white LEDs have become inexpensive and common, there’s a lot more going on in them then you might think.

46 thoughts on “Tech Imitates Life: Fireflies Make Better Light Bulbs

          1. Just enjoy it and move on with your day. You don’t need to tell other people what to like, and shouln’t need the Internet to give you dopamine by incrementing a counter.

          1. Joke explanation warning: This is pun based on quote “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”. So, maybe someone classified firefly as fruit, but still don’t put it in a salad.

    1. I have “optical migraines”, so I’ve had to learn a few tricks for piercingly bright leds.
      (blue are generally the worst for triggering headaches)

      If you’re in a situation that it’s not your equipment to mod:
      A small piece torn from a sticky note, with the glue placed slightly to the side of said light, where most of the light bounces out around the paper, can be a still give a useful brightness yet not be a distracting glare.
      If need be, grab a black marker and color the sticky paper, so that it blends in with the equipment and doesn’t draw attention to your “mod”. ;)

      Sometimes the light is inside something you just think is too damned much work to dismantle?
      Or again, It’s Not your gadget to mod.
      A small piece or three of fabric medical tape does the job.

      1. I get nasty trigeminal neuralgia headaches and stuff like Gabapentin doesn’t help. The affected nerves seem to be tied into my optic and nasal nerves and if I can force a proper sneeze the nerve pain resets after a momentary spike. The best way I’ve found to trigger a sneeze is to go outside on a sunny day and expose my eyes to strong indirect sunlight. The resulting rapidfire sneezes will probably someday give me a concussion but its better than a migrane.

  1. There are a lot of study’s now that suggest that ” photons ” do not exist. Light is a ” wave ” in the ether like radio waves. Your eyes observe waves reflections from objects that change in wave length depending of the surface the bounce back from. It is like trowing a stone in a pool and the expanding rings bounce back from the objects on the edge of the pool.

    Here is a alternative vision about what light is and does :

    1. This was a true WTF moment for me – i looked at the date of the article first (expecting it to be April 1st), but it’s from 1994, Aug 20 –

      Quote from the article: “Using a similar argument, Jones previously pointed out that the work for which Einstein received his Nobel prize, the ‘proof’ that photons exist based on the photoelectric effect, is similarly flawed. All that is proved is that energy can only be added to or subtracted from the field in definite units.”

      Another gem: “But, recently, some researchers have carried out the double slit experiment using electrons, fired one at at a time, to build up an interference pattern. How does Jones explain that? Although he does not discuss this version of the experiment in his paper, he told New Scientist that this is a ‘very interesting problem, which can be tackled in several different ways’. He favours the idea that electrons are real particles, and that their statistical distribution after being fired through the two slits depends on a wave associated with the electrons.”

      So ‘photons’ don’t exist, but are rather waves that yet can only be interacted with in localized packets of energy. Wow. i propose we should call this new and revolutionary thinking …. wave/particle dualism.

      1. I don’t think it’s worth anything to look at his work and just say “so you mean particles”. There are “localized” areas of electrical waves in AC as well. The ability for electrons to radiate at specific energy levels doesn’t prove that light is a particle.

    2. That is definitely, put politely, an “alternative” view.

      I only watched a few minutes, but aside from calling everyone involved in the development of modern physics “mental midgets” and other random insults, it didn’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. And it certainly didn’t explain anything that “normal science” doesn’t.

      1. A property of matter. The internal energy of a system or group of particles. Heat is the transmission of this energy between groups of particles.
        It has little to do with photons.

          1. >>There is always a heat if there is light

            Heat is not light. Heat is a property not a substance. We can use light to create the most heat devoid systems in the universe. Your statement is beyond useless since in the absence of heat there wouldn’t be anything since heat is just an accounting of internal energy.

          2. No.
            Photons are not a way to produce heat. Photons are in fact produced by heat insofar as blackbody radiation is concerned. But temperature is not the only way to produce photons, the LED in your lamp is not operating at 5000 k.

    3. Photons exist by definition. Whether you call it “fields can only be tapped in finite amounts” or photons, nobody cares. One could as well call them dingleberries and postulate their existence.

    4. One thing I recall reading a while back — which I’m sure is just another sort of over-simplification — said that waves need a medium to travel through. So if light is a wave, how can it travel through vacuum?

      The answer? Photons are the medium.

    5. calling light also a particle might not be very accurate, but it is not entirely wrong description.

      Wave and particle is how most people can “relate” to the properties of matter in motion.

      Of course, light is a wave, but there are instances where we can mathematically look at it as a particle.
      It is kind of a like a short hand. A confusing short hand, but a short hand none the less.

  2. I had a co worker from Australia out to my farm one night while he was in the states. He really liked the country, but as he was leaving he asked me how I managed to string all those thousands of LED’s up in the trees out back, it was stunning. It took me a few to realize what he was talking about. He had never seen a firefly before. No kidding. He was floored when I showed him the LED’s were really insects.

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