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The Incandescent Light At the End of the Tunnel

(click thumbnail)A tungsten photonic lattice glows in a vacuum chamber as Sandia researcher Shawn Lin inspects an iridescent disk that contains approximately 1,000 tungsten photonic lattices.If you're brave enough to pay attention to the brouhaha pouring from the world's media right now (including the output of the news studio down the corridor from where you may be reading this), you probably have noticed that our politicians are starting to acknowledge that climate change may, more or less, given the balance of probabilities, perhaps, actually be happening.

This is an intriguingly cautious approach, considering the overwhelming body of scientific evidence available in this case, and how starkly it contrasts with their certainty about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in a country they so desperately wanted to invade. As you would expect from this great innovative country, almost overnight, the United States has become a global leader in exploiting the political capital that can be extracted from this planet-wide catastrophe.

In March's Let There Be Lighting, California Assembly member Lloyd E. Levine's proposal to ban incandescent lamps in that state was dismissed as a political stunt with no sound basis in practicality. Sadly, this was a grave error of judgment: Levine must be acknowledged for his political acumen in kick-starting a worldwide movement among desperate politicians who are looking to do something headline worthy about climate change, without offending their coal-mining, auto-manufacturing, or oil- and gas-producing constituents.

Seeing the media success of Levine's announcement of possible future legislation prompted politicians in Canada, Germany and the 27 member states of the European Council to issue media releases about investigations into similar legislation and questions to be raised in many more countries.

However in Australia, that Pacific island the size of the U.S. mainland with a population just slightly greater than New York State, they have gone even further. Australia's increasingly unpopular conservative federal government faces an election towards the end of 2007 and is currently going through a series of policy backflips in an attempt to improve its chances of re-election.

Overnight, its federal government metamorphosed from a global warming denier into the first country in the world to announce a policy on incandescent lamps.

The policy change was so abrupt that only the prime minister and the environment minister were aware of it at the time of the media release. It certainly came as a surprise to Philips Lighting and the environmental group Planet Ark, which planned to promote the spread of compact florescent lamps by launching a "Ban the Bulb" media campaign later that very week.

On peeling away some of the hoopla, it appears that Australia's policy is not targeted at the incandescent lamp in general, but only at the very inefficient standard GLS (General Lighting Service) bulb that is used almost exclusively in household fixtures.

The mechanism for implementing the change is to set a standard for light source energy efficiency that must be met by every product being sold. There will also be a list of exempted specialist applications that don't have to meet the standard. ALIA, the association that represents most of the entertainment and production lighting industry, is watching closely to see that the promised exemptions for these industries are included in the final standard.

There's no need to remind anyone in the television industry just how long it can take to arrive at a standard. It certainly won't be happening before Australia's 2007 federal election. To make absolutely certain that the politicians won't have to face any bad response to the abolition of GLS lamps, the date for the cessation of sale is a couple of years away, well into the next term of the parliament.

Added in to this circus comes a vague announcement from GE that they have developed a new high-efficiency incandescent lamp that will be from two to four times more efficient than current lamp technology. The various content-free media releases that were splashed across the networks and the newspapers talked about a wondrous new technology that would be available by 2012. GE was careful not to confuse the public by giving them any details of what the technology is or how it may work.

Then there is the tungsten photonic lattice that was announced in 2003 by the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Sandia National Labs. This development promises a 60 percent efficient tungsten lamp, but understandably hasn't progressed very far from fundamental research to public availability.

Not that this has stopped the story from being dredged up by every journalist who can type a few words into an Internet search engine to prove the United States has the situation in hand.

Strangely enough, the one technology that may give us real high-efficiency incandescent lamps in the foreseeable future has its origins in entertainment technology.

Lighting wunderkind David Cunningham, the astounding brain that brought us Multi-Q, Light Palette, the CD80, ENR and the ubiquitous Source Four lamp and optical system, filed a patent for a more efficient incandescent lamp last October.

Cunningham's simple but elegant concept is to put a coating on the inside of the lamp's envelope that will trap the infrared emissions inside the bulb, but let the visible light get through. Instead of losing 95 percent of the input energy as radiated heat, that energy is used to keep the filament hot and produce more visible light.

The coating described in his patent application sounds like the inverse of the coating on a Source Four reflector: It keeps the beam cool by reflecting only visible light while allowing the infrared energy to escape out of the back of the luminaire.

Our full-spectrum, warm-colored and fully dimmable friend the incandescent lamp looks set to stay with us for sometime yet, despite the dire warnings of its imminent demise.