Headed Toward Extinction: The Light Bulb

I come not to praise the incandescent light bulb. I come to bury it.

The familiar incandescent Edison bulb debuted 130 years ago, on December 31, tar pits. Incandescent bulbs are incredibly primitive compared to the other items in your life. They generate light by heating gases with a hot wire in a sealed glass jar, making them one of the oldest and last vestiges of the vacuum tube era. Computers started with vacuum tubes in the late 1940s and transitioned to transistors by the 1950s. Radios, stereos and TVs all went digital over the course of the last several decades.

What else happened in 1879? Frank Woolworth opened his first stores in Utica, New York. Russia and the United Kingdom signed the treaty of Gandamak to establish a new state called Afghanistan. Six years later, the car would be invented by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Damlier. If you brought Rutherford B. Hayes back to life, he'd probably be a little nervous about getting into a 787 or eating Jello shots, but he'd likely understand your porch light. Other types of bulbs, which will go by the wayside someday too, have similarly unusual long lives. Georges Claude invented the neon light in 1911 while the fluorescent was invented in 1927 in Germany.

Age necessarily isn't bad. The problem is that age in this case means inefficiency and waste. Incandescents only use about five percent of their electric power to produce light. The remainder turns into waste heat. That's why you see these bulbs in Easy Bake Ovens, reptile farms and highlighting the baron of beef on buffet tables.

A few die hard "Get the Government and its Black Helicopters off My Back" people try to convince me that the regulations would impinge on their lifestyle: they use incandescent bulbs to heat their home. You only have to remind them that heat rises: unless they are walking on those bulbs, they are just creating a tropical environment for roof spiders.

Light also tends to get indiscriminately deployed. Look at pictures of the Earth at night. Areas like Tokyo, London and the Eastern Seaboard seem just as bright at night. Unless you are planning a bombing raid from Neptune, there's no reason to illuminate the edge of a continental shelf. Those offices you see in urban night skylines? The only person burning the midnight oil in most of them is the janitor. Putting lights on networks would be a great idea, except that only around 1 percent of lights.

That wasted energy adds up. Lights consume about 22 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and about ten percent of the total energy. Transportation only consumes about 26 percent. Traditional lights are IOU-inefficient, old and ubiquitous.

But is there anything coming around the bend to replace them? Manufacturers finally seem ready to release light emitting diodes on a broad scale. LEDs, which are essentially computer chips that suck in electricity and spit out light, consume about 1/10th of the power of incandescents. Just as important, they can last 50,000 hours, or 19 years under regular scenarios, before they burn out. Put another way, don't buy a five pack of LED bulbs for the lamp on your nightstand: you'll probably be dead before you use them all.

Until now, LEDs have largely been held back by two factors: high prices and a light color that can best be described as "alien autopsy." A year ago, Toshiba came out with a dimmable bulb that put out about as much light as a 100 watt bulb. It cost $360. Now, Panasonic, Sharp, and a host of start-ups like Lemnis Lighting (founded by the grandson of the man who started Philips Lighting) are coming out with LED bulbs that cost $40 to $50. That's higher than your usual bulb, sure, but LED bulbs can save $12 to $20 in power a year. Some companies may even concoct lease-on-light programs and others still say they can drop the price to $25 in a few years. (link on 25 http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/new-led-aims-to-whack-prices-of-solid-state-lighting-5584/)

And the color? E.T.'s finger is vanishing. Because LEDs come in colors, some manufacturers, like Sylvania Osram, will come out with lamps that can blend different colors. Incredible Hulk coming for dinner? Turn a knob for a green tint to make him feel at home.

There are other novel lights coming too. Luxim makes a light that is about the size of a Tic Tac but it puts out as much light as a streetlamp. Researchers from the University of Illinois, meanwhile, have started a company called Eden Park Illumination that makes a flat, energy-efficient and completely recyclable bulb. You could put it in kitchen counters.

So when you finally get around to saying good bye to your old bulbs, don't feel too sad.
  • Michael Kanellos

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