Incandescent Bulb's Future Not Bright


This article was published by Newsletter, issue #29, 2007-03-10.

Humans have an innate urge to control their environment, and this includes the illumination of that environment. For most of our time on Earth, we have had to make the most of natural lighting, which consisted of light provided by the stars — primarily the one closest to Earth, the sun. Those ancestors of ours found their daily schedules dictated largely by sunrise and sunset, just as it does for all other diurnal creatures. It wasn't until we learned how to control fire, that we were able to extend the hours of safe wakefulness, and to light up recesses of our world that had previously known only eons of darkness. The fire torch, despite its low-tech design, allowed the bravest of the group to explore the deeper and darker parts of the cave — literally and figuratively. It also allowed man to make a step forward in productivity — and a step backward in health — with the introduction of the world's first "all-nighter".

Yet even in the most imaginative dreams of the fire-taming cave dwellers, they certainly could not have conceived of a day, hundreds of thousands of years later, when a lowly office worker could begin another modern-day all-nighter simply by flicking a plastic switch on a wall, thereby illuminating an entire acre of cubicles. For this history-changing capability, our grumbling cubicle slave can thank the inventors and developers of incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs. These electromechanical pioneers include Sir Humphry Davy, an English physician, who as early as 1801 created the first rudimentary incandescent light, by passing an electrical current through platinum strips. Thin metal filaments can serve as simple media through which to pass electricity, but they tend to burn out after little time — to which any homeowner can attest who has made the mistake of using an incandescent light bulb in a hard-to-reach place. A wiser choice, in such a case, would be a fluorescent bulb, whose origins date back to the second half of the 19th-century, and the pioneering efforts of German physicist Heinrich Geissler and Serbian genius Nikola Tesla. They and other scientists chose media that would never physically deteriorate like metals, namely, gases.

Incandescent bulbs have other disadvantages compared to their fluorescent counterparts, known as compact fluorescent lamps (CFL): They generally consume five times as much electricity to produce the same amount of light. That wasted energy — up to 95 percent! — takes the form of heat, which is usually unwanted, especially by the hapless homeowner who mistakenly touches a bulb that has been burning for some time. In addition, CFLs last four to ten times longer. Proponents of incandescent bulbs are quick to point out that they are much cheaper. But that is only true from the short-term perspective typical of far too many modern consumers. Over the long haul, fluorescent bulbs incur far fewer total costs, due to their much greater longevity and energy efficiency. For example, a single 20W CFL will provide about the same amount of light during its lifetime as 15 100W incandescent light bulbs.

The environmental advantages of replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones, may alone be sufficient to make it worthwhile, partly because use of the latter could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 60 to 70 percent. In the UK alone, for instance, such a policy would reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by 2.3 million metric tons per year. Extending that policy throughout Europe, for all new lighting, would achieve reductions of approximately 24 million metric tons. Critics of CFLs note that they contain trace amounts of mercury, unlike incandescent bulbs. However, these levels are only a third of what is released into the atmosphere by power stations burning fossil fuels in order to produce the extra power required by incandescent lighting — to say nothing of all the other airborne pollutants.

The ecological benefits of fluorescent lighting have now become so obvious that even government officials are beginning to take notice — especially those in a former English colony, though it is not the United States. By the year 2010, Australia will have completely phased out all standard incandescent light bulbs, according to Malcolm Turnbull, the country's Federal Environment Minister. It is estimated that this new mandate will, by 2012, reduce Australia's greenhouse emissions by four million metric tons, and cut household lighting costs by up to 66 percent.

Speaking of gaseous emissions, Turnbull's counterpart within the US federal government, EPA head Steve Johnson, participated in the annual "Change a Light, Change the World" campaign in October 2006, in which the EPA, DOE, and HUD asked Americans to promise to replace a single incandescent light bulb during an entire year. An EPA press release boasted, with no apparent irony, that these changes comprise "small energy-saving actions". Not waiting for the US federal government to make a sizable difference, retail giant Wal-Mart has been strongly encouraging its customers to adopt CFLs, and has vowed to get CFLs into 100 million homes during 2007. In the United States, there is plenty of room for progress, as only six percent of households use CFLs. Wal-Mart's campaign reportedly met with resistance from light bulb manufacturers, competitors, and consumers.

Despite the hurdles faced by CFLs, it is likely that that the incandescent light bulb will eventually join the fire torch as an obsoleted technology no longer used for lighting modern man's cave.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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