LEDs and National Security

February 20, 2016

Chris C Blog Photo
LEDs and National Security

If you pay attention to the business of solid state lighting, you may have heard by now that the planned sale of Philips’ Lumileds and automotive lighting divisions to a consortium of Chinese investors was blocked by the U.S. government’s Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS).

OK, but how does the U.S. government have jurisdiction when a Dutch company wants to sell something to Chinese investors? Normally they wouldn’t, but Lumileds is still a subsidiary of Philips based in California with both R&D and production in the United States. So the federal government does have a say, if it chooses to.

But why do the feds care about the sale of an American LED manufacturer? Aren’t there dozens of companies outside the U.S., and many in China that already make LEDs? How is this a national security issue?

This isn’t really about LEDs, at least not directly.

Two posts in this blog last year talked about the basic building block for white LEDs, which is the compound gallium nitride or GaN. GaN is used to make LED dice, and manufacturing competence in making it is very closely-guarded intellectual property.

GaN is also used to make power transistors capable of handling very high currents and temperatures, and are used in things like:

  • Motor controls
  • Power supplies
  • Radar Systems
  • Missile Guidance Systems

The U.S. government doesn’t have a national security interest in keeping LED R&D and manufacturing in-country, but they most certainly do want to keep the know-how behind advanced radar and airborne weapons out of certain hands. This sale-scuttling ruling was about things much bigger than just solid-state lighting.