It’s amazing the things that light and energy can do. Often, advancements in civilization and technology are driven by processes from which most of us never give a second thought to. Sterilization, down to the microbacterial level, is one of those pieces of progress rarely discussed in history classes and looked at by futurists, but undoubtedly, our ability to clean medical tools and drinking water is a very powerful source behind humanity’s ability to prosper. In decades past, this highly-important but unsung process was completed with the use of mercury lamps, which produced proper waves of ultraviolet radiation in order to get the job done in most industrial settings. But as we enter a new technological era, one marked by our increasing ability in LED photometric standards, we may be embarking on a revolution in sterilization with uses that we can’t yet even imagine.
LEDs used for the disinfection of tools, lab equipment, medical gear, and even drinking water comprise an industry some expect to soon explode. One analyst group recently pegged the possible market share at $610 million by 2021. There are some hurdles for the LED sterilization marketplace to overcome before becoming a reality, however. For one, mercury lamps work. As a deeply ingrained sterilization technology, they have the current advantage of both familiarity and our experience in using them.
Mercury lamps also have significant drawbacks. They are expensive, bulky, and only useful to professionals on a large scale. Additionally, mercury lamps are inefficient and require special disposal. Because the lamps contain mercury, they can’t simply be put into a dumpster or trash compactor because they could potentially break and release mercury into the environment. Both the EPA and local governments set strict disposal guidelines.
But what if you could use the effective ultraviolet light sterilization process without the dangers of mercury involved? In steps LED technology. At present, the only thing holding LEDs back from fully taking over the industry itself is the technology. Mercury lamps are incredibly powerful emitters of short wave ultraviolet light, and at our current place in time, LEDs have yet to be able to scale up to their power. However, innovations in photometric standards and careful calibration techniques appear to be quickly shortening that gap in power: LED light is exceptionally versatile, and we are still uncovering techniques for deploying the light spectrum it gives off. Configured correctly, LED arrays will likely match the brute wattage of industrial lamps in the very near future, and at a fraction of the cost and size. One day, a rural family could purify water from a well with an LED configuration that fits into a device the size of a soda bottle. This is the dream and the hope for the future of LED light sterilization technology.