July 13, 2024

Bulb In, Bulb Out

As a consumer product, light bulbs belong to what one industry executive calls a “low-thought category,” and yet, of late, they’ve become a surprising flash point. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have denounced the “light-bulb ban” — actually, a new set of federal efficiency regulations that the traditional incandescent can’t meet — as a symbolic case of environmentalist overreaching, and Michele Bachmann invoked it in the Tea Party’s response to the State of the Union. Wherever your political sympathies lie, you may have found yourselves nodding along with Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who has lambasted the harsh glare given off by those “little, squiggly, pigtailed” compact fluorescents. When it comes to making light, a fundamental necessity of human civilization, libertarians and aesthetes are joined in an unlikely alliance. Environmental groups say the complainers are a cranky minority — that consumers will eventually get used to new light — but those in the illumination business can’t afford to be so sanguine. And that is why, inside a drab Silicon Valley office building belonging to a company called Lumileds, some of the industry’s most brilliant minds are plumbing the mysteries of light on an atomic level, working to devise the bulb of the future.

Lumileds, a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Royal Philips Electronics, specializes in the manufacture of light-emitting diodes (L.E.D.’s), tiny semiconductor chips similar to the ones you’d find within your computer, except that they turn electricity into photons instead of information. Behind the walls of the company’s hermetically clean manufacturing facility, technicians wearing white jumpsuits, puffy caps and rubber gloves work at enormous humming reactors, combining various gases at 1,000 degrees centigrade to “grow” the crystalline substance that forms the critical element of L.E.D.’s.

Philips created its L.E.D. bulb to compete for the L Prize, a government-sponsored award meant to encourage the development of a replacement for the 60-watt incandescent before the new standards begin to go into effect in January. Traditional incandescents are extremely inefficient, giving off 90 percent of their energy as heat, not light, and over the years, the government and the lighting industry tried to move consumers on to products like halogens and compact fluorescents. But no amount of subsidy or “green” branding has managed to woo consumers away from Edison’s bulb. “Not only is it in alignment with the type of light that consumers like,” says David DiLaura, author of “A History of Light and Lighting.” “It’s commoditized and it’s cheap.”

So some years ago, Philips formed a coalition with environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council to push for higher standards. “We felt that we needed to make a call, and show that the best-known lighting technology, the incandescent light bulb, is at the end of its lifetime,” says Harry Verhaar, the company’s head of strategic sustainability initiatives. Philips told its environmental allies it was well positioned to capitalize on the transition to new technologies and wanted to get ahead of an efficiency movement that was gaining momentum abroad and in states like California. Other manufacturers were more wary, but they also understood the downside to selling a ubiquitous commodity: the profit margin on a bulb that sells for a quarter is negligible. After much negotiation, the industry and environmental groups agreed to endorse tightening efficiency by 25 to 30 percent.

A bipartisan bill passed Congress with little notice in 2007, but protests have mounted as the phaseout nears, and lighting companies need to prove to the public that efficient products can also be easy on the eye. “The morality of the global threat” is one way to push people toward more-efficient lighting, Verhaar says. “But I think that a larger number of people are going to be mobilized based on the lighting benefits.”

Andrew Rice (andrewrice75@yahoo.com) is a contributing writer and the author of “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget.” Editor: Vera Titunik (v.titunik-MagGroup@nytimes.com).

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d781eea1bd1dd59f6e8bcbed80e485eb

Speak Your Mind