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Rural Electrification Master Plan

Move over bulbs: there are better ways to make light now! There are those compact fluorescent lamps, for example—the ones that save you energy and money. But, even better, there are LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that are just as bright as bulbs, last virtually forever, and use hardly any energy at all. An LED is a special type of diode (a type of electronic component that allows electricity to flow through in only one direction). Diodes have been around for many decades, but LEDs are a more recent development. Let’s take a closer look at how they work!

Photo: Unlike incandescent lamp bulbs (used in things like flashlights), which burn out relatively quickly, LEDs are extremely reliable—so much so, that they’re typically soldered right onto electronic circuit boards. They virtually never wear out! This is the tiny LED indicator lamp from a computer printer’s control panel.

The difference between conductors and insulators

Bank of LEDs on an instrument panel

Photo: LEDs are much smaller than lamp bulbs and use a fraction as much energy. They are particularly suitable for use in instrument panels, which have to be lit up for hours at a time. Put many diodes together and you can make as much light as a conventional bulb but use only a fraction as much energy.

If you know a bit about electricity, you’ll know that materials fall broadly into two categories. There are some that let electricity flow through them fairly well, known as conductors, and others that barely let electricity flow at all, known as insulatorsMetals such as copper and gold are examples of good conductors, while plastics and wood are typical insulators.

What’s the difference between a conductor and an insulator? Solids are joined together when their atoms link up. In something like a plastic, the electrons in atoms are fully occupied binding atoms into molecules and holding the molecules together. They’re not free to move about and conduct electricity. But in a conductor the atoms are bound together in a different kind of structure. In metals, for example, atoms form a crystalline structure (a bit like equal-sized marbles packed inside a box) and some of their electrons remain free to move throughout the whole material, carrying electricity as they go.