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Hong Kong economy

The invention keeping Hong Kong street lights glowing during dangerous thunderstorms

Lightning can cause lamp posts to cut out, creating danger on the roads. Paul Wong’s award-winning development could change that

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 9:29am

A local engineer has come up with an award-winning solution to stop lamp posts that use LEDs from failing in Hong Kong’s bad weather and plunging road users into dangerous darkness.

The LEDs – light-emitting diodes – inside modern street lamps are popular because of their energy efficiency, but can break if the electricity supply is affected by lightning, creating hazardous conditions for drivers. This is an especial danger in Hong Kong, where summer months can be filled with thunderstorms. For example, during Monday’s storms alone there were 1,294 lightning strikes, according to the Observatory.

But Paul Wong Hon-pong, working with the University of Hong Kong, has devised a fix. It uses copper wire wrapped around an iron core as the main component, rather than semiconductor parts, which are affected by the lightning.

Wong said his solution meant a longer lifespan – at least 10 years, compared with three years for traditional LED technology – and maintenance costs that are about 50 per cent lower. He said installation would be three times more expensive.

The invention, which two Hong Kong government departments have been testing since 2016, recently won a gold medal at the 46th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva, in Switzerland. It also scooped the William E. Newell Power Electronics Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an award known as the Nobel Prize of power electronics.

“LED lamp posts cause road safety hazards as they break down easily in lightning and thunderstorms, plunging the road into darkness,” Wong, chief executive of Federal Group Global, said.

The mainland has moved faster [than Hong Kong] when talking about developing a smart city
Paul Wong, engineer

According to the 2017 Smart City Index, compiled by Swedish firm EasyPark, Hong Kong has trailed other major Asian cities such as Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo in harnessing advanced technology and building it into its basic functions.

Since 2016, it has been ranked 68th out of 500 economies in terms of transport and mobility, sustainability, economic innovation, digitisation, and experts’ perception.

A Highways Department spokesman said it would replace conventional road lights with 25,000 semiconductor LED lights to save energy, while 10,000 fluorescent tubes at subways would be replaced with semiconductor LED tubes over a period of seven years, from last year.

The department, which put Wong’s technology on trial in nine lamp posts at Shek O in 2016, said initial results were satisfactory and it could “survive the thundery environment”. The Electrical and Mechanical Services Department has been testing the technology since the end of last year, and placed four LED lamp posts in a basketball court on A Kung Kok Road, Sha Tin.

Wong said the technology could be used in “smart lamp posts”, a concept the government floated late last year as part of its smart city blueprint, to run to 2022.

A government spokeswoman said smart lamp posts would house devices such as traffic detectors and cameras, meteorological sensors, sensors and CCTV to track air quality and illegal dumping, Wi-fi routers and equipment for 5G mobile data.

By 2022, the government plans to have 400 smart lamp posts installed in Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, she said. Hong Kong now has 140,000 traditional lamp posts.

Wong said his technology had been adopted in Heshan county of Jiangmen, a city which is part of the central government’s “Greater Bay Area” plan to economically integrate Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities of Guangdong province. He said his company would soon be responsible for installing half of the Heshan government’s planned 20,000 smart lamp posts.

“The mainland has moved faster [than Hong Kong] when talking about developing a smart city,” Wong said. “But whether on the mainland or Hong Kong, as a small or medium-sized enterprise, it is very difficult and costly to apply for patents on inventions.”

Hong Kong must ‘innovate or die’, new study warns

From its development until he applied for its patent, Wong said the technology had cost more than HK$10 million (US$1.3 million), funding coming from himself and some investors.

William Yu Yuen-ping, chief executive of environmental group the World Green Organisation, lamented the high cost to smaller companies of developing technology and applying for patents. He urged officials to help smaller businesses “commercialise and internationalise” their inventions.

“Can the government roll out pilot schemes in cooperation with bigger companies so that they will have more confidence in new technologies developed by smaller companies? “ Yu asked. “This will help commercialise the technologies.”