Let There Be Cheap, Abundant Light

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Let There Be Cheap, Abundant Light

The common incandescent light bulb found in any home has also been a handy source of heating for the past century.  Hatcheries use light bulbs as a heat source to warm baby chicks.  People use them to germinate seeds indoors in the winter and restaurants use them to keep food warm on the serving counter. 

Unfortunately, this convenience also points out the major flaw in the remarkable invention that brought light to every home:  Incandescent light bulbs are primarily producers of heat, not light. 

If what you're after is bright, clear, balanced illumination, a conventional light bulb is a very poor choice.  In fact, it wastes 90 percent of the electrical energy it uses.  Meanwhile, it requires burning a lot of coal to create the needed electricity. 

Until fairly recently, no one really cared.  Coal was cheap, and so, therefore, was electricity.  Only when the energy crisis of 1973 hit did people begin to think differently about wasting fuel. 

At that time, Edward Hammer, an engineer at General Electric, invented a compact fluorescent light (CFL) that could replace incandescent lamps and use 75 percent less energy, even while it lasted 10 times as long as an ordinary light bulb. 


Like conventional fluorescent tubes, the CFL works by exciting mercury vapor with electric current.  The mercury vapor then emits ultraviolet light, which can't be seen.  But, the UV light hits a special coating on the inside of the glass, and that coating, called a phosphor, gives off light in the visible range. 

The CFL took a while to find its market.  For one thing, the energy crisis ended and people went back to their old ways, taking energy for granted.  For another, when GE realized that it would cost $25 million to build factories to produce the new bulbs, it shelved the idea. 

But in the 1980s, Philips and a German company called Osram — a division of Siemens — began turning out usable CFLs, and during the 1990s and into the 21st Century, they have gradually become widely accepted. 


However, even as CFLs were penetrating the marketplace, scientists kept working on an even better source of illumination, the light-emitting diode.  LEDs have already become familiar features of electronic devices.  They are found in the small lights on everything from cell phones to calculators. 

LEDs work by using a phenomenon discovered in 1907 called electro-luminescence...

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