The Revenge of the Bulb -- and the Tube

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The New York Times reports on a possible incandescent renaissance that could modify traditional bulbs to capture waste heat as light, improving their efficiency by 30, 50, or even 100 percent to qualify for new energy standards. Score one for technology-forcing legislation -- at least for now. It's doubtful that even with higher energy prices, entrepreneurs and established lighting companies would be investing in a high-priced replacement for such a homely, familiar commodity.

We still can't rule out short-term bottlenecks with new incandescent designs. Automated light bulb factories turned out to be very difficult to engineer in the early 20th century. Between the wars, the Hungarian-born physical chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi was a light bulb inventor and a consultant to the Hungarian lighting industry. In his book The Tacit Dimension he cited the surprisingly long time required to resolve problems with light bulb production lines in Budapest that had been operating smoothly with the same equipment in England. Scaling up the new designs around the world might be challenging. The incandescent bulb has proved so popular because decades of incremental changes in production technology had produced such a lean system. According to the unusually complete Wikipedia article on the subject,

[b]y 1964, improvements in efficiency and production of incandescent lamps had reduced the cost of providing a given quantity of light by a factor of thirty, compared with the cost at introduction of Edison's lighting system

Light bulbs aren't the only surprise in energy efficiency studies. I was recently amazed to learn from The Green Home site that at least in smaller sizes, cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions actually use fewer watts per square inch than liquid crystal display (LCD) sets:

As television screens grew to mammoth proportions it quickly became apparent that they were also becoming mammoth energy hogs.  According to the California Energy Commission current LCDs use about .27-watts per square inch and plasmas use 0.36-watts per square inch.   In contrast, a CRT uses .23-watts per square inch.  A set to set comparison is not possible because CRTs are not manufactured in quite the giant economy sizes of the other two types of display, but here is one example, also from the Commission:  a CRT with a 30 inch screen - very generous size for that type - uses 101 watts.  An LCD that is 42 inches in diameter uses 203 watts and a plasma screen of the same size uses 271 watts.

To conclude on energy and the pace of innovation. 1) Laws and bans may accelerate innovation. But since advocates acknowledge that low manufacturing standards and inadequate recycling plans for CFLs can also negate their environmental benefits, the state thereby begins a regulatory treadmill of testing and enforcement. Nationally CFL recycling is still a work in progress. 2) Just as automobile makers used their efficiency gains in the 1990s to offer more powerful cars with the same MPG ratings, the LCD has helped promote ever-larger televisions using more energy than CRTs. 3) If you have a CRT, why not keep it, and if you need a TV, why not get a good used CRT for very little? Think of it as adopting a dog from a shelter.



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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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