One of the world’s biggest LED companies is trialling Australian technology that could make the world a whole lot brighter.

Including, one day, your car headlights.

Clean energy developer BluGlass (ASX:BLG) has spent a long time working on its semiconductor invention, called RPCVD. The company has been listed on the ASX for a decade, and before that the tech was in the lab at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

But it’s hopeful now that a collaboration with one of the industry’s key global players will show results, and soon.

BluGlass managing director Giles Bourne said a second phase of testing with lighting giant Lumileds — a spin-off of Philips — was due to be completed late this year or early next, which could then lead to a commercial agreement.

Lumileds make LEDs for a range of applications including cars, computer displays and lamps. You’ve probably used one of their products without even realising it — one of the lights they make is for the camera flash on the back of smartphones.

The system BluGlass has created could help Lumileds, and others, manufacture stronger LEDs that last longer and shine brighter. That not only boosts their margins, it also opens up new uses for the lights themselves.

Directional headlights

Mr Bourne said LEDs were used in most new cars nowadays, but only sparingly — most notably in “daytime running lamps” which are the little strips of lights around the headlights.

“Most new cars would have daytime running lamps which are LEDs. They’re very valuable and there’s an awful lot of cars on the road,” he said.

But the big goal is the headlights themselves.

“High-beam and low-beam lighting,” said Mr Bourne.

“Right now LEDs are barely used in high-beam and low-beam lighting because the performance isn’t there.”

But that could all change if someone — like BluGlass — was to make better performing LEDs that were up to the task. And with it would come some extra bonuses as well.

“The reason why you want LEDs is because they’re a much smaller form-factor, less prone to failure and they’re directional, so the headlights could turn with you as you turn the steering wheel,” Mr Bourne said.

“The driver behind that will be the performance of the material, so we think our technology could play a very important part in introducing LEDs into that high-beam, low-beam market.

“We think it’s a pretty big objective.”

So how does it all work?

As it turns out, making LEDs is actually a very complex process that Stockhead doesn’t pretend to understand entirely.

But Mr Bourne did attempt to walk us through the basics of how they’re manufactured now and how the RPCVD technology is different.

At the moment LEDs are made by a process with a similar acronym, MOCVD, which requires ammonia to be pumped in and then “cracked” under heat to produce atomic nitrogen.

The key difference is that RPCVD produces atomic nitrogen a different way, which doesn’t need a high temperature.

Light emission of RPCVD p-GaN wafer. Picture: BluGlass
Light emission of RPCVD p-GaN wafer. Picture: BluGlass

“The current process has to have high temperatures because they have to thermally crack the ammonia. They have to break the bond between the hydrogen and nitrogen and they do that with heat,” Mr Bourne said.

“What we do is use nitrogen put through plasma, and that gives us atomic nitrogen without using any heat.”

Lowering the temperature results in fewer defects and a higher-quality material, Mr Bourne said.

MOCVD machines aren’t cheap — Mr Bourne said they could cost between $2 and $10 million — and big companies need quite a lot of them to make enough lights for demand.

Mr Bourne said that’s why the testing process with Lumileds had been so thorough, because if it does decide to proceed with BluGlass it will have to retrofit its expensive MOCVD machines.

BluGlass shares have traded between 22c and 41c over the past 12 months.

The company spent $1 million in the quarter to June, leaving $8.5 million in cash. It expects to spend another $1.3 million in the current quarter.