Incandescent lights may mount a comeback

Reports of the death of incandescent lights may be exaggerated. Although the current generation of bulbs will effectively be banned under the lighting efficiency standard passed, we learn via the New York Times that a research team has roughly doubled the efficiency of regular light bulbs by blasting the filaments with a laser:

> The key to creating the super-filament is an ultra-brief, ultra-intense beam of light called a femtosecond laser pulse. The laser burst lasts only a few quadrillionths of a second. To get a grasp of that kind of speed, consider that a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to about 32 million years. During its brief burst, Guo’s laser unleashes as much power as the entire grid of North America onto a spot the size of a needle point. That intense blast forces the surface of the metal to form nanostructures and microstructures that dramatically alter how efficiently can radiate from the filament.

The laser sounds like it requires a lot of energy, but it doesn’t — it can be powered by a standard wall outlet. The research team believes that, once refined, the technique should be fairly simple to integrate into current manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, a research team at Deposition Sciences has also been able to double the output of incandescents by coating them with a material that converts waste heat into visible light. It’s possible that combining the two techniques, along with a variety of other advances coming out of labs, could extend the reign of Thomas Edison’s most famous invention by at least a few more years. The lighting efficiency standard only requires a 30% efficiency improvement by 2014 and a 70% improvement by 2020, benchmarks that seem well within striking distance for improved incandescents.

But even these improvements may not be enough to protect old-school bulbs from their new-fangled rivals. LEDs are getting better so quickly, and offer so many advantages over other forms of lighting, that they’re already proving popular in large-scale applications like street lighting and other specialized circumstances despite their hefty price tag. (Fun fact of the day: because LEDs don’t emit ultraviolet radiation, they don’t attract bugs.)

Which is all to the good. I don’t know which of these technologies will prevail, but at this point I feel pretty confident that we can count on the lighting efficiency standard to knock a few percentage points off the national carbon footprint at a very low price per ton.

Take a minute, now, to recall some of the hysterics we were treated to when the standard was approved at the end of 2007. I distinctly remember being lectured that environmentalists didn’t grasp the nature of technological progress; that the lighting efficiency standard was an assault on fundamental freedoms that would put us on a slippery slope to one-world government; that the law of unintended consequences virtually guaranteed that we’d all be dead from mercury poisoning within a year. This was often from people who professed to be concerned about climate change. But actually doing something about it? Well, that was a bridge too far.

It’s probably a bit early for an I-told-you so, but at this point it appears the efficiency standard is working as advertised. By guaranteeing a market and helping to correct some incentive misalignments, the lighting efficiency standard is unlocking technological innovations that will benefit the environment at low or no cost to society. Ultimately, there’s only so far efficiency standards can take us. But they are another tool in the kit, and we may as well pluck whatever low-hanging fruit are available in the fight against climate change.

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