Don’t Curse the Darkness, Get One of the Bright New Lights | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Don’t Curse the Darkness, Get One of the Bright New Lights

It's time to say good-bye to the iconic, but inefficient incandescent bulb and welcome in LEDs

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The Geobulb LED light bulb

Some may be bothered that not everyone at an Apple Genius Bar is really a genius. Or that sliced bread is no longer a standard of greatness. What irks my wife is Eastern Standard Time.

All weekend, when TV anchors reminded us to set the clocks back, what I heard was “another hour of sleep.” What she heard was, “Come to the dark side.”

I’m sure she’s not the only person unhappy to have it feel that it now gets dark right after lunch. A new study, in fact, found that this begins the time of year when people start to avoid taking financial risks; other research says the time shift even gets to pets.

But I will not curse the darkness. Rather I say we should celebrate our renewed relationship with artificial light, particularly because we’re entering into a watershed winter, the beginning of the end for the incandescent bulb.

On New Year’s Day, the ban on producing 100-watt incandescent bulbs kicks in, the first wave of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which will also phase out lower-wattage bulbs over the next few years. Incandescent bulbs, revolutionary in their day, are one of the more inefficient inventions of the past century—90 percent of the energy they use goes to creating heat and only 10 percent produces light. So, many people, including light bulb manufacturers and President George Bush, thought banning the bulbs was a good idea when the law passed in 2007. (Apparently so does the Chinese government; it announced over the weekend that it will start phasing out incandescent bulbs next fall.)

Since then, however, critics have painted the federal ban as the epitome of the “nanny state,” preachy bureaucrats telling Americans what’s good for them. And so far the public hasn’t shown a lot of love for the replacement bulbs—the curlicued compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that, while five times more efficient and likely to last at least six times longer than incandescents, have a flickering reputation. They take longer to brighten and even then, many people find the hue too cool. Not all of them work well with dimmers, and when they break they require more care to clean up because of the mercury inside.

Enter the 21st century light bulb

Bottom line, though, is that CFLs are more likely to be a phase we go through on our way to light-emitting diodes, better known as LEDs. Now those are 21st century light bulbs—consuming one-tenth the energy of incandescents, but able to last 50 times longer. (To see how the three types of bulbs stack up against each other, see Popular Mechanics’ “Ultimate Light Bulb Test.”)

Of course, there’s the matter of the price. These are not times when people want to hear about $20 light bulbs.  Understood. But some experts think the price could drop under $10 in a few years.  And keep in mind, you’ll probably change the oil in your car a dozen times or more before you’ll have to change an LED bulb. 

Not only will LEDs change how we view bulbs, they’ll change how we view lighting. A company called Nth Degree Technologies is producing lights that look like glowing sheets of paper and can actually be wrapped around curved surfaces. On a much larger scale is City Touch, a system developed by Phillips in which LED lighting in a city automatically adjusts to weather, traffic and people walking by at night. Phillips claims it could cut urban lighting costs by 70 percent.

Have a problem with jet lag? LED lights can help with that, too. They’re being programmed in airplane cabins on transcontinental flights to smooth the circadian rhythms of passengers.

Try that with Tom Edison’s light bulb.

The light stuff

Here are some other innovations spreading light in new directions:

Video bonus: What if every light bulb in the world could transmit data? Scientist Harold Haas shows it’s possible.

Today’s question: What will it take you to give up on incandescent bulbs?

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