Incandescent's Not-So-Dim Future

in The Biz

Last year seemed to be a tipping point for Thomas Edison’s most ubiquitous invention. Early in 2007, California Assemblyman Lloyd E. Levine proposed legislation that would ban incandescent lamps. The move was dismissed as a political stunt, but it did initiate some global hand-wringing and soul-searching, and that led to political initiatives in Canada and the 27 member states of the European Council to announce that those countries would begin researching similar out-with-incandescent lamp strategies. In mid-year, Australia became the first country to proclaim a policy designed to eliminate the most energy-inefficient forms of incandescent lighting. This will take the form of a standard — yet to be determined — for light source efficiency that must be met by every lighting product sold. Whatever that standard eventually is, it will certainly be far greater than the approximately 5 percent efficiency of the everyday incandescent bulb, which loses 95 percent of its energy in the form of heat.


The Australian government’s commission supervising the fade of the incandescent light Down Under has promised the country’s entertainment industry, among other interest groups, that it will have certain exemptions to the standards, in order to not force the broadcast, theatrical and other staging sectors to transform how they light the world overnight. But the juggernaut is gaining momentum. Late in 2007, the U.S. Congress had agreed upon the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, legislation that even President Bush — notorious for his previous ambivalence on global warming and energy regulation — has agreed to sign. The legislation calls for all bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy than current products, with the standard imposed by 2014. The bill’s supporters state that the measure will save $40 billion in energy and related costs from 2012 to 2030 and take 51 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere annually.

It should be noted that there are no exemptions planned for the U.S. entertainment industry or any other sector, per se, along the lines of what the Australian government has said it would do. However, David Marks, communications manager for the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources in Washington, D.C., told me, “While there are no blanket exemptions for particular industries such as theatres, certain specialty lamps [will be] exempted from regulation. Also, when the first-tier standards apply in the 2012-2014 period, there will be more efficient incandescent lamp technologies available — halogen, incandescent, and so on.”

While that kind of optimism from Washington is rare, in this case, it’s well-placed. The professional lighting industry has been a leader in moving to new illumination technologies — we saw LEDs in entertainment applications before we saw them on automobile taillights and digital signage. Nonetheless, incandescent light remains a critical technology for the industry for many reasons, including its warmth and its dimmability.

Now, Edison’s most prolific progeny might be getting some sorely needed help. One source could be GE Consumer & Industrial’s Lighting division, which last February announced advancements to incandescent technology that assertedly will elevate its energy to levels comparable to compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), delivering similar environmental benefits. The new high-efficiency incandescent (HEI) lamp will incorporate as-yet-unspecified new materials being developed in partnership by GE’s Lighting division and its Global Research Center. The first products to use HEI technology would be consumer 40- to 100-watt bulbs, but GE’s announcement states that HEI would be expanded to “all other incandescent types as well.” (The fact that GE has yet to produce a working model suggests that the announcement has a political component, given GE’s vast infrastructure built around incandescent lighting. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.)

The search for a brighter incandescent future has been going on for a while. The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Sandia National Labs announced a tungsten photonic lattice solution in 2003. It promised a 60-percent efficient tungsten lamp, but thus far remains in the research stage.

More promising is the technology contained in a patent application filed last October — promising both because of its simplicity and the track record of its progenitor. David Cunningham is the inventor of the widely used Source Four luminaire as well as Multi-Q, Light Palette, the CD80 and ENR. Cunningham’s simple but elegant solution is to coat the inside of the lamp’s envelope, trapping the infrared emissions inside the bulb but letting the visible light pass through. The retained energy is used to keep the filament hot and produce more visible light with less heat. The patent application asserts that the new design might produce as much as 80 lumens per watt, which is about the same as a CFC lamp.

Getting more mileage out of incandescent is fine with some in the industry. “From the sheer perspective of keeping innovation healthy in our industry, I would hope that we wouldn’t receive any exemption, and actually that we had requirements imposed, or incentives, perhaps, to create and develop more alternatives and more optimal uses of the existing technologies as well,” states George Studnicky, president of Creative Stage Lighting. “Also, try to name one designer that wouldn’t want to see new tools and toys being made readily available every year.  Satisfying that need alone provides a great deal of the vigor necessary to keep efforts like developing technologies beyond incandescent lighting robust.”

Considering the importance of incandescent technology to the professional lighting industry, the ongoing debate is important. Some kind of exception for the industry, even a temporary one, would be nice, given the huge investment in current lighting infrastructure and the fact that the lighting industry has pioneered the application of alternative lighting technologies for decades. On the other hand, the knowledge that a door is closing, such as what analog television is facing, could also be the kind of impetus needed to spark even more efficient incandescent technologies in the future.  

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