China pours millions into solid-state lighting program

Saving energy and stimulating domestic LED production are key goals behind China's decision to invest around $44 million in its national solid-state lighting program. Robert Steele reports from the China International Forum on Solid-State Lighting in Shenzhen.

The third annual China International Forum on Solid-State Lighting (CIFSSL) was held in Shenzhen on July 12-14. This year the attendance grew to over 520 delegates, mostly from mainland China, with approximately 40 attendees from other regions, including the US, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Although there are several other regional LED and solid-state lighting conferences held in China each year, CIFSSL has been established as the “official” international conference on this subject, and is sponsored by the highest levels of the Chinese government (including the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry for Information Industries), as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Governing Committee for Solid-State Lighting.

The conference, held at the Shenzhen Conference and Exhibition Center, was accompanied by an exhibition featuring approximately 150 companies. Most of these were Chinese companies exhibiting a variety of LED lighting, display, and component level products, as well as test and measurement instruments, optics and materials.

Five Year Plan

As in previous CIFSSL conferences, the Shenzhen conference was densely populated with a wide range of presentations on subjects ranging from markets and applications to highly technical topics such a device structures and device processing. There were a total of eight sessions over two days, and 41 speakers, including 22 from outside mainland China.

This year’s CIFSSL was of particular interest since China formally inaugurated its national solid-state lighting program in February 2006 as part of its 11th Five Year Plan. The conference keynote speaker was Dr. Ma Songde, Vice Minister of Science and Technology. Dr. Ma has been a key supporter of China’s SSL program, and is also Chairman of the Governing Committee for China Solid-State Lighting.

Dr. Ma noted that the growth of the high tech sector is key to China’s future development, and that LEDs are seen as and indispensable part of that sector. Only 10% of China’s GDP comes from high-tech today, and 88% of that results from foreign companies located in China or from joint ventures with Chinese companies. Therefore, one goal of the national SSL program is to stimulate domestic production through the use of public-private partnerships.

Energy savings

Of course, another key goal of China’s SSL program is energy savings. China is the second largest energy-consuming country after the US, and its energy consumption per dollar of GDP is much higher than Japan, Europe or the US. The country has ambitious plans to quadruple its total GDP by 2015, but to only increase energy consumption by a factor of two.

Lighting is a key element of energy demand growth, especially as 14 million rural Chinese move to cities each year. The adoption of SSL will be an important element in reducing the growth of energy demand.

Investment

To address the R&D needs for SSL, China has budgeted RMB 350 million (US$44 million) during the 11th Five Year Plan. Participation will include more than 15 research institutions and university research labs, as well as more than 2500 companies involved in LED wafers, chips, packaging and applications. Protection of IP is a significant concern and a major element of the SSL program, yet China also believes that no single enterprise should be able to monopolize the technology or markets.

In summary, China expects to be the largest market for LEDs and solid-state lighting in the world. It will promote the growth of its domestic industry through public-private partnerships, but will also welcome the participation of foreign companies. It fully understands the need for protection of IP, and encourages Chinese companies to file patents to protect their IP.

Patents and IP

As IP and the protection of IP are emerging as major issues in the development of the Chinese SSL market, it was interesting that two presentations addressed this issue head on. The first was by Wu Xiao-Ming of the National IP Strategy Formulation Group Office. Mr. Wu noted that China’s patents on basic LED device technology lag Japan’s, Europe’s and the United States’ by 6-20 years. Moreover, many Chinese companies, especially smaller ones, do not appreciate the importance of patents.

However, said Mr. Wu, to be successful in international markets, it is important to file patents and to respect IP. For example, Huawei, the highly successful Chinese telecom equipment company, has filed more than 11,000 patents.

IP protection is essential to spur innovation in the private sector. Because of the lag in patents between Chinese and foreign companies in basic device technology, Mr. Wu suggested that Chinese companies look for patent “gaps” where there are areas of SSL that have not yet been addressed by foreign companies, primarily in the “downstream” areas of packaging and applications. He also noted that Chinese companies will have to file patents abroad if they hope to compete in international markets.

The second presentation was by Xiao Zhiguo, president of Dalian Luming Science and Technology Group, which includes one of China’s largest HB LED chip producers, Lumei Optoelectronics. Mr. Xiao re-iterated Mr. Wu’s admonition that it is essential for Chinese LED and SSL companies to develop patents on core technologies in order to compete in the world marketplace. Almost as a counter example to Mr. Wu’s remarks, Mr. Xiao proudly noted that Luming has core patents on a variety of phosphor and chip technologies both in China and overseas.

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