"I had a
head designer of Philips swearing at me at Frankfurt. … I think it’s very easy to become complacent when you’re considered to be a global dominating company. It’s very easy to do work in the method you’ve always worked, to be satisfied." That’s Jake Dyson—yes, the son of that Dyson—talking to me about his new LED lamp, the CSYS LED task light. In a world of expensive disposable electronics, his studio has created a gadget that could last a lifetime. His lamp uses the exact same LED bulbs as any other product on the market, but through clever design alone, milks up to 50 years of beautiful, unwavering light from them. You will never see the CSYS grow dim or turn pink, unless you buy it young and live a very long time.
And so maybe that upset someone at Philips, just a bit. But how did CSYS, a relatively tiny design studio, succeed where the industry giants have failed?
"We’ve done a lot of research," Dyson says euphemistically. "One was looking at LED desk lamps, and seeing what was bad about them. Alongside that, we were ripping apart very high-end LED downlight fittings from big companies like Phillips, etc., and doing thermo and electrical tests to find out what was inefficient or bad about them." Over 18 months of development, they actually built a small climate chamber in their studio, measuring the temperatures of key components on the LEDs, along with light output and power. And they learned a lot about their competition.
"The thing they were all doing badly was not cooling the LEDs, and not putting any scientific design into improving those," he says. "They just need to roll out a new product every year. It’s more about putting out the latest LEDs and packaging it, and selling it, rather than looking at how something might last forever. "They’ve all gotten in this trap of designing for fashion rather than designing for function."
LEDs were developed back in the 1960s, but it’s only recently that we’ve come to see them everywhere. They’re energy sipping bulbs on computer chips, and because of their new ubiquity, few houses actually get dark at night anymore—instead glowing in a blue-green haze of electronics that refuse to go black. Even still, LEDs have never lived up to their potential. Not so long ago, I was taking a tour of one of the world’s most famous meccas of gastronomy. The owner lamented to me that his striking, LED-infused entryway was growing dull after its pricey installation.
He wasn’t alone. Those who’ve purchased LED lamps will find that the numbers on the box can lie. Such figures are based on technical estimates by the LED manufacturers themselves, not the companies sticking the LEDs into lamps and other fittings. LEDs are so tiny and power efficient that they can fit in almost any design you could imagine, but these same designs end up roasting the lights in their own heat. So lights that promise to last decades on the box—an environmental coup in terms of waste and energy savings—will degrade quickly, grow dim within a few years (or even months), and their color temperature shifts. The promised engineering capacity of LEDs hasn’t played out in the marketplace.
Whereas most of the market has leveraged lousy design to turn LEDs into a disposable product, Dyson wanted to elevate the LED to a post-disposable electronic treasure, an heirloom light that could be passed from one generation to another. And it was theoretically possible, he knew, if only he could deal with the pesky heat issue. But who could solve the heat issue, if not the big LED manufacturers?
"LEDs are semi conductors," Dyson reasons aloud, "and semiconductors are used in computers. And the way they cooled semiconductors in computers was using heat pipes." The answer to the LED problem wouldn’t be found in the LED industry. It would be found in the computer industry. But while Dyson had realized heat pipes could probably solve the LED overheating issue, his studio couldn’t figure out the technology on their own.
"We tried to make our own heat pipes, sucking air out with a wine vacuator," Dyson tells me.
"Did it work?" I ask.
"No!" he laughs. "We got onto the professionals rather quickly at that stage."
By this time, Dyson had become almost fanatical about collecting heat-pipe-laden computer chips, bits of silicone ripped from any electronic hardware around. So when he flew to Taiwan to meet with the world’s largest manufacturer of heat pipes, CCI, he was prepared.
"I dumped my whole box of them out on the table, and they said they manufactured every single unit," Dyson recounts of the chips branded by companies like HP, Apple, and Intel. "We very quickly realized, this is the company we have to work with to create our heat pipe. But unlike other companies that came to them with a design to manufacture, we asked them to design it with us using their knowledge."
Heat pipes are a fascinating cooling technology worthy of a bit more explanation. They’re essentially copper tubes with a vacuum inside. But inside that vacuum resides a single drop of moisture. Water evaporates at very low temperatures in a vacuum, so ambient heat transforms this water into vapor, the vapor shoots from the hot end of the heat pipe to the cool end. There, the water cools and condenses, making its way back to the hot end of the pipe. The cycle repeats to create an infinite loop of efficient, passive cooling.
So in the CSYS, the entire cross beam (which holds the LED) is one gigantic heat pipe. This heat pipe is supported by a scaffolding of heat sinks. When you combine all of that surface area, heat within the LEDs dissipates with remarkable efficiency. With the temperature at which the LEDs’ junctions run in the CSYS, manufacturers can guarantee 160,000 hours of sustained light—no dimming or color temperature change. That’s over 30 years. And it’s a conservative figure. One internal estimate by major LED manufacturer Osram gives the CSYS an operational run time of 220,000 hours—or about 50 years of nonstop light. Dyson can’t publish that number as no LED light has ever been tested that long in a lab. (But that’s not stopping us.)
As of today, the CSYS is going on the market as one of the most expensive table lamps you’ve probably ever seen—priced at $900. As ridiculous as that may appear, their own math argues that over 30 years, the lamp’s energy and bulb savings (against CFLs) will actually save the buyer money while helping the environment. Then again, that logic might not be so reassuring, given that the CSYS will probably be saving you all that money long after your own torch has gone dark.