The blue light-emitting diode, arguably the greatest optoelectronic advance of the past 25 years, harbors a dark secret: Crank up the current and its efficiencies will plummet. The problem is known as droop, and it’s not only puzzling the brightest minds in the field, it’s also threatening the future of the electric lighting industry.

Tech visionaries have promised us a bright new world where cool and efficient white LEDs, based on blue ones, will replace the wasteful little heaters known as incandescent lightbulbs. More than a dozen countries have already enacted legislation that bans, or will soon ban, incandescent bulbs. But it’s hard to imagine LEDs dislodging incandescents and coming to dominate the world electric lighting industry, unless we can defeat droop.