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New reports evaluate LED technology and its potential use in ultraviolet disinfection

LED technology still needs to advance, but could improve practicality and efficiency of ultraviolet disinfection in near future, reports say

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Two new reports by researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, evaluate the state of commercial ultraviolet light-emitting diode (UV LED) technology and its potential use in germicidal ultraviolet (GUV) applications for air and surface disinfection. The research comes amid renewed interest in GUV disinfection, primarily sparked by the emergence of COVID-19.

The reports identify a significant opportunity to increase the reliability of LED products with improved semiconductor manufacturing processes, better packaging and advancements in materials. Investments in these areas would further improve the energy efficiency of UV LEDs and “accelerate commercial use” in industrial, medical and disinfection applications, according to the authors.

“GUV disinfection has been around for decades, but widespread adoption has been hampered by the size of the fixtures, lack of efficiency and risk of mercury contamination,” said Lynn Davis, Ph.D., an RTI Fellow in engineering research and lead author of the reports. “Our research makes it clear that UV LED technology shows a great deal of promise in commercial uses, including in GUV fixtures, but still needs to advance in a few areas before that potential is realized.”   

One report, titled Initial Benchmarks of UV LEDs and Comparisons with White LEDs, focuses on the construction and initial performance of commercially available UV LED components. The other, titled Operating Lifetime Study of UV LED Products, reviews the long-term performance and reliability of commercially available UV LEDs.

In disinfection applications, UV LEDs could be more compact, better for the environment, eliminate a significant source of mercury contamination and provide benefits to the air, groundwater and food chain, according to Davis and his colleagues.

The main obstacle, they note, is improving the efficiency of LEDs that primarily emit wavelengths in the UV-B and UV-C bands — the latter of which is needed for more effective disinfection. Davis and team predict UV-B and UV-C LEDs will make significant advances toward overcoming these technical challenges in the next 5-10 years.

“It’s exciting to think about the potential of LED technology, especially in the context of a pandemic, whether it’s COVID-19 or another virus in the future,” added Davis. “There is undoubtedly a big market opportunity as the capabilities of LED technologies become widely available in UV devices.”

The research is part of a decade-long effort at RTI, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and LED Systems Reliability Consortium (LSRC), to study emerging LED lighting technologies.

To learn more about the work that RTI has performed in support of the DOE solid-state lighting program, visit the technical reports page on DOE’s website. 

Read our Insights blog on GUV, 'A Lightbulb Moment.'