back to article Boffins: Ordinary lightbulbs can be made efficient, cheaply

Just as authorities in much of the Western world have moved to phase out the incandescent lightbulb, American boffins believe they have developed a process which can make the oldschool lights more efficient than energy-saving lamps. Optics boffins at the Rochester Uni in New York state say they've developed a process in which …


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  1. Eddie

    The boffins...

    Please, please, let them be right... I don't want to live under the feeble, wan glow of energy saving bulbs

  2. michael

    snake oil

    sounds a bit suspicious have they proven that they produce the conrespondingley reduction 9in head and other wast products?

  3. Jaap Stoel
    Thumb Down

    And this is good news how?

    I know fail when I see it.

    Incandescent bulbs turn about 2% of the energy in to actual light. Even with that increase of two thirds they are still far less efficient then the energy saving bulbs.

    Now if they could turn it around and make sure that incandescent bulbs become 98% effective, then I'll be impressed. Until then, I will strive towards LED bulbs.

  4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    It's not about energy saving

    Incandescent bulbs never have wasted energy, they've just always been producing non-visible IR and heat.

    Most fluorescent tubes do produce shit light but there plenty out there which have a high-colour temperature and also reproduce all the colours of the spectrum. As this involves emitting light at more frequencies than the standard, gloomy ones, they do nominally require slightly more power but as the light produced is very pleasing. Some of them are even dimmable.

  5. Rick Byers


    Could we fire this at our polititcians and get a brighter bunch from the current low wattage crop??

  6. Matt

    Energy efficiency / Lifespan

    Making them more energy efficient is only half the problem. Does this process increase their lifespan by an order of magnitude as well? If it doesn't they will still be far less efficient over their lifespan than a CFL.

    Agreed on the crappy light temperature problem though. I have a few energy saving bulbs and even though they've got better recently they are still rubbish.

  7. Kev K
    Thumb Up

    Me too

    I hate the nasty feeble light from these energy saving jobbies - PLEASE Mr. Mad Scientist ahead at warp factor 11 with getting this to market (and I hope you make at least a squillion bucks/pounds/euros whatevers worth anything at the moment)

  8. John Carney

    the best bit is ..

    if you hook it up to a solar cell, it will power itself

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Energy saving fluorescents are a dead end anyway

    Toxic metals used in the manufacture mean they're not as environmentally friendly as claimed. And the light isn't exactly nice, as Eddie points out above.

    The future is LEDs - just swapped 1200W of GU10 halogens for 120W of LEDs, the cost saving speaks for itself even before you factor in the increased longevity of the LEDs (and the halogen ones pop pretty often IME)

    Going to convert the rest of the house as soon as reasonably possible!

  10. breakfast

    One problem is a focus on means rather than objectives

    My parents recently built a house designed to be energy efficient from the start. One of the things they are doing for this is to use LED based lighting, which lasts well and uses very little power. However because the LED ceiling lights fut into the same fittings as halogen downlighters the house isn't technically low-energy as the UK quango on energy efficiency ( whose name currently eludes me ) looks at it.

    It seems to me that it would be smarter of them to say "your lighting should use less than X kilowatt hours" or whatever, rather than "you should use X light bulbs and that is the only way to be energy efficient." The latter approach may make for an easily created standard but it immediately gets left behind by technology as it develops.

  11. Lionel Baden

    lifespan ?

    are they just going to fail to mention how many hours this bulb will last ??

    3 hours or what ?

  12. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Bring on the confusion

    The output from lightbulbs could be measured in well defined Lumens, but energy efficient lightbulb manufacturers prefer to say "as bright as a 60W bulb". They look for the dimmest bulb that draws 60W for their comparison, so customers are disappointed.

    If a light fitting is rated for a bulb that uses 60W, imagine what the shop assistant will say about an efficient bulb with the same output as an 80W bulb.

  13. Dave Higgin

    Please hurry with this!

    Not only the feeble wan glow that tehy give out but I want to be able to switch a light on and actually be able to see, rather than switch a light on, wait five minutes for it to warm up, then be able to see :(

  14. Red Bren

    Hindsight is 20/20

    "But if it's as simple as Guo suggests to enhance an incandescent with his laser process, this may turn out to have been an unnecessary or even retrograde step."

    Well is it? Can the filament be treated during the bulb's manufacture or must it be done after? Can pearl effect bulbs be treated? What effect does the treatment have on the lifespan of the bulb? A 40% energy saving isn't much use if the bulb only lasts a week.

    As for the incandescent bulb ban being an unnecessary retrograde step, what are governments to do? Sit on their hands and do nothing on the grounds that a better solution might present itself?

    Flames, because there's more heat than light...

  15. Cameron Colley

    Government knee-jerk reaction turns out to be wrong.

    Why doesn't that surprise me.

    Still, much easier to pretend you're doing something by banning perfectly usable products than waste time looking into the situation more carefully.

  16. Ethan Grammatikidis
    Paris Hilton


    You describe a >50% improvement where halogens are already on the order of a 66% and energy savers are nearer 87%.

    Paris because >90% of the population of the country are energy airheads.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Let's apply Occam's razor..

    The simplest explanation is that the laser made a small patch of the fillament a lot thinner, increasing the resistance and hence power consumed and fillament temperature. Only a small proportion of the filament length was treated by the laser beam, and so only a small effect on the bulk electrical properties would be observed.

    No statement of the changes on the electrical properties of the lamp have been made that might otherwise justify the claims.

    Move along, nothing new here.

  18. Murray Pearson

    Another advantage...

    Femtosecond-zapped tungsten doesn't have the hideous environmental impact of mercury.

  19. Ethan Grammatikidis

    *engages brain, makes connection*

    Oh huh, I just realised the same laser technique could be applied to halogens, and likely should as the operation of a normal bulb would rapidly burn away the efficient layer. Hmm now... we could be looking at better than 80% saving between the 2 techniques. That's more like it.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Getting the arithmetic wrong

    "more efficient than energy-saving lamps"

    "40 per cent energy savings"

    One or other of these is wrong. Current compact fluorescent lamps give 80 per cent energy savings - a 20W CFL is equivalent to a 100W incandescent.

  21. Ash

    Yes yes yes, but when...

    ... will we be able to mount it to a shark?

  22. Dave


    By the sounds of it, these should still work with the dimmer switches that most normal people have fitted around the house, which none of the CFL or LED ones do.

    I know that some of them claim to be, but what you have to do is fit a normal light switch, and flick it a few times to step between OFF, Dim and "reasonably bright but not quite as good as they used to be", ie exactly the sort of thing that adults have been telling kids not to do for years, as it causing arcing of the switch contacts.

    Can anyone explain why they don't put coatings on the inside of tungsten bulbs to react to the IR radiation, the way that they do with fluorescent tubes?

  23. Tjalf Boris Prößdorf


    This is ridiculous.

    Yes, most of the energy is transformed into heat, not visible light.

    How is that a serious problem in most of Europe and northern America, where we need to heat our living quarters most of the time anyway?

    Maybe those light bulbs are not efficient if seen only by themselves, but if you look at the room they are lighting and heating at the same time, the efficiency problem pretty much vanishes.

    Now, what else can we forbid next week?

  24. Gareth Jones

    Meet the new boss, etc.

    So we're mercury must be irradicated from all products because it' so bad for the planet.

    Then we're told we have to cut carbon emissions so we have to convert to low energy bulbs (which are essentially the same tech as the flourescent strip lights that illuminated the seventies and eighties).

    So how long will it be before we're told that we need to convert to these new incandescent bulbs because the mercury in the low energy bulbs will destroy the planet?

    And then when everybody has converted how long will it be before some other reason is found to convert again?

    Does anybody really believe any of this crap is about saving the planet? It's all about tax revenue and funding big business who will in turn fund political parties. Oh and if it helps to save the planet that's just a happy coincidence.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    I like the concept even if it's not as good as LED's or others.

    I always find it funny people complaing CFL's aren't bright enough though. Am I the only one to search out 25watt and above CFL's? You can't look at them, they're that bright. They do even higher ones too. If you look at places like service stations they use great big ones now a days for flood lighting indoor areas.

    The trouble lies I suspect in that most people are all about short up front cost rather than thinking about the long term.

    Paris, because she can make things last.

  26. eBusiness


    Well, a 40% energy saving ain't going to make light bulbs anywhere near as efficient as the lowpower tech.

    By the way, what happens if you laserburn a part of the wolfram thread in a lightbulb to make that part thinner? The burned spot shines brighter, but the rest of the thread goes slightly darker, so overall you get slightly less light at slightly less power draw, though the difference in power draw may be too small to notice without high precision equipment.

    I'm not making any accusations, I'm just stating what the expected result of burning the wolfram thread in a light bulb using a high energy laser would be.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    The truth about CFLs

    Yes, they last longer. Yes, they use less electricity in your home. That's about the only thing positive and true in all the hype about CFSs. A CFL may uer 30-40% less electricity while they're on, but the amount of energy needed to manufacture the things is some 1000 times that of standard incandescent bulbs. More, from the moment a flourescent bulb is turned on, the amount of light produced begins to fade. After about a year or so, it is so weak and unnatural many people simply replace them. Irreconcilable is the fact that they contain murcury. Not simple elemental murcury, which is harmless, but murcuric oxides, which are highly toxic. The production of CFLs is very polluting, which is why most of them are made in China.

    And none of this addresses the real problem with CFLs. The light they produce is horrible - even the best and most expensive of them. Studies have shown that their light increases depression in those predisposed to the disorder. I've been stocking up on incandscent bulbs. I won't ever use CFLs. When all my my incandscent bulbs are gone, if there's no better lighting technology available, I'll revert to using candles and oil lamps, reserving CFLs to work areas and emergency lighting. Incandescent lights can be made more energy efficient and long-lasting, but there's little profit to be had in doing so. CFLs are all about hugh profit margins, which is another reason most are made in China.

    We're being scammed folks.

  28. Anonymous John

    @ Getting the arithmetic wrong

    "a 20W CFL is equivalent to a 100W incandescent."

    That's what it says on the box. But in my opinion, you need 25W to equal 100W, and they aren't easy to find.

  29. Filippo

    @Red Bren

    Your rhetorical question actually has a simple, constructive answer. Governments should mandate a minimum lumen/watt ratio. That would result in energy savings without precluding advances in "old" technologies.

  30. Mad Mike
    Thumb Down

    CFLs are Rubbish

    Before banning anything (whatever the reason), the authorities first need to ensure a reasonable alternative exists. CFL dimmers are useless. Utterly, utterly useless. Either they don't work with a normal dimmer switch and require the stupid switching of standard switch, or they work with some (emphasis) dimmers, but then not really properly. I know. I've got loads of dimmers and have been trying various of these CFLs with them. All rubbish. That's just the practical side before talking about the mercury.

    LEDs also have numerous problems. No dimmers, hideously expensive (although should come down), nowhere near as efficient as people claim as the light output is very poor, even with the new high powered ones etc.etc.

    In other words, no practical alternative exists........... Loads of waste and environmental impact for me as I replace loads of dimmers and bulbs and wiring etc.etc. to make my house work with the new technology. It's effectively another tax. It will do b****r all to help the environment, but costs me more tax through higher VAT per bulb payments etc. As to the lifetime. I don't care. Changing a bulb now and then isn't much of a hastle. Having rubbish light is..........

  31. Anonymous Coward

    Why can't you morons buy a clue?

    CFLs were never about saving energy because AGW is a hoax anyway. It was always about politicians rewarding their friends so their friends could pump more money to their election coffers or offshore accounts (depending on location and proximity to retirement of course).


  32. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge


    "Can anyone explain why they don't put coatings on the inside of tungsten bulbs to react to the IR radiation, the way that they do with fluorescent tubes?"

    It's all to do with the wavelength of the light, and therefore the amount of energy contained in each photon. flourescent tubes produce ultraviolet, which is more energetic than visible light. This hits the phosphor which will absorb the UV and reemit the energy at a shorter, visible wavelength.

    With IR, the wavelength is already shorter than that of visible light, so any coating working in the same way would actually produce microwaves, or even radio frequencies, which most people can't see by.

    Materials which can absorb multiple photons of one energy and remit single photons at higher energy are known as a type of 'nonlinear optic', which typically only work at very high intensities and somewhat inefficiently. Ones which work as you describe are somewhat of a holy grail of materials chemists. If you can come up with such a thing, you'd probably get a Nobel prize for your trouble...

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Energy savers

    I still don't get this stuff about energy saving bulbs taking a long time to light up. Only one room in my house is now without energy savers. If they took a long time to light up then I wouldn't want them. Having said that, the cheap 60w bulb does take about a second to come on...

    For what it's worth, the light seems exactly the same colours as the old style bulbs too.

    As for this article - who wants to make normal light bulbs brighter? I used to have to replace at least one bulb every fortnight. I haven't replaced any of the energy saver ones (yet) and some of them have been up for over 6 years now! That's saved me a lot of money that I would otherwise have spent on normal bulbs, no matter how bright.

  34. David Biggins

    I'll get me coating

    "Can anyone explain why they don't put coatings on the inside of tungsten bulbs to react to the IR radiation, the way that they do with fluorescent tubes?"

    Flourescent tubes generate UV light which the coating absorbs and reemits as lower energy visible light. Tungsten bulbs generate lots of IR which cannot be so easily converted to visible light as it is a lower energy radiation than visible light.

  35. Seán

    @Ethel grahamcracker

    Don't you worry your pretty little head with all those percentages. You forgot to take into account the cost of the bulbs and you also ignored the mercury. Still you did a great job for a vegetarian.

    The CFC bulbs don't last forever and I can tell you that buying a replacement bulb especially once I'd found out about the toxic materials was a no brainer. Just buy a lower wattage bulb than you used to 40 is adequate for most purposes.

    Dimmer switches are ridiculous.

  36. Dave Bell

    Black Bodies

    No, not Paris Hilton in a coalmine.

    The big problem with fluorescent and LED lighting is that the colour spectrum doesn't even get close to thermal light sources, and while it can look OK to human eyes, there are all sorts of problems for cameras, and for colour matching.

    This doesn't sound good enough for domestic high-efficiency lighting, but if the bulbs have a decent life there could be all sorts of specialised uses. You can match two different materials under fluorescent lights, and they will look very different in daylight. And if they can get a daylight spectrum from ordinary tungsten bulbs, rather than by using an energy-sapping blue coating, anyone working with colour will be interested.

    (Yes, that is a Kodak grey card in my pocket.)

  37. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge


    ...also, as well as being inefficient and only working at high intensities, nonlinear optics which produce sum-frequency generation only work at specific wavelengths.

    Mercury vapour lamps work by exciting the vapour, by passing an electric current through it. This produces a series of specific wavelengths, known as an emission spectrum. This is because the atoms in the mercury vapour are separated, as a gas. It is specific fequencies in the ultraviolet that excite the phosphor to produce reddish light, to counter the otherwise blueish light the mercury produces in the visible spectrum.

    In a metal element, such as the tungsten in an incandescent bulb, the atoms are together in a metallic state. For several boring, quantum physics related reasons, exciting such a material produces a band of emissions, rather than specific frequencies. This is to do with the way electrons can move in a metal.

    The upshot of this, is that to do any frequency doubling, or other sum-frequency operations would require a number of materials, each tuned to a different frequency, or set of frequencies, to absorb and reemit the light at a range of shorter, visible wavelengths. The R&D and manufacture of such composite materials would be prohibitively expensive, so the costs would outweigh any benefits by several orders of magnitude.

  38. Tim

    Today's handy tip

    If you're unhappy with the light from your CFL bulbs and they are more than a couple of years old, lob them in the bin and buy some new ones. I have tried this (I actually had some unused ones left over from 2 years back) and was very impressed by the improvement. To make this approach environmentally sound, use a bin woven from organic stuff.

    Alternatively, buy a stock of those nice 100 watt incandescent bulbs whicle you can still track them down.


  39. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge


    Forgot this

  40. Andrew Barr

    How much electricity is used to product the laser beam

    I bet that the laser used on the light bulb uses more electricity than the bulb saves and therefore the whole process is a waste of time!

  41. Jan

    sharks with frikkin' las^H^H^^HLEDs.

    @ac 11:43

    >The future is LEDs - just swapped 1200W of GU10 halogens for 120W of LEDs, the cost saving

    > speaks for itself even before you factor in the increased longevity of the LEDs (and the halogen

    > ones pop pretty often IME)

    > Going to convert the rest of the house as soon as reasonably possible!

    I'm a fan of GU10 LEDs, but I'd caution you to keep your receipts. A fair proportion of built in power

    supplies has a habit of failing soon after you start using the bulbs, so you may have a nice LED

    light engine with 49.990 hours of ueful life in it embedded in a casing with a burnt out power supply. Once I'd exchanged the duff ones, the remainder have all continued to function. Only two and a half years use, for the oldest, so far.


    > Can anyone explain why they don't put coatings on the inside of tungsten bulbs to react

    > to the IR radiation, the way that they do with fluorescent tubes?

    No explanation required. Flourscent tubes produce ultraviolet light, t@he flourescent coating re-emits it as visible light.

    @Tjalf Boris Prößdorf

    > How is that a serious problem in most of Europe and northern America, where we need

    > to heat our living quarters most of the time anyway?

    Because local heat generation, whether from burning fuel or capturing solar or geothermal

    energy, is usually more efficient than using distant heat generation.

  42. Anonymous Coward

    Gas lamps

    I remember a time when people complained the colour of the light from incandescent light bulbs. There were many a person who swore that they would never switch to these fancy electrical thingys and would stick with the tried and trusted gas lamp. The light from a gas lamp was the best colour for viewing your sewing and picking the right colours of your threads.

  43. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    We use flamming torches to light our cave

    They burn for hours and hours, just like in the movies!

  44. Dunstan Vavasour


    It's all cod environmentalism based on the over-simplified carbon footprint scale. The simple fact is: all carbon emissions are not created equal. Burning electricity means burning carbon in huge furnaces, with flue gasses being desulphurused before their eventual discharge. Jetting off for a weekend to get drunk in Prague rather than Basildon emits a vile cocktail of organic and inorganic pollutants straight into the upper atmosphere, as well as seeding clouds and creating contrails.

    Yet we find new runways being built, while light bulbs which give a continuous light from a continuous spectrum are banned.

  45. Ed

    How long will these treated bulbs last?

    Technically, if they've just found out they can do this, it's possible they haven't had time to put them through the durability testers yet. However, it seems likely to me this treatment will have a degrading effect on the lifespan of the bulb - I've seen several other treatments which made incandescents brighter, and they all had crippling effects on bulb durability.

    Like several others here, I've seen that there's a great amount of variation in the quality of energy saving bulbs, including LEDs. The best LEDs I've seen appear to me to have *better* full-spectrum qualities than most incandescent lights, rather than worse. IMHO, it'd take actual spectrum analysis to compare them to the best incandescents, and I don't have that equipment.

    As far as elemental "murcury" being harmless - if you're trying to convince people that something is bad, it's generally not a good idea to tell them lies so obvious that anyone with any knowledge of the world knows you're lying. Mercury is fundamentally toxic (yes, there are trace amounts in nearly everything, but trace amounts we can handle. *Everything* has an LD50.) Even back in the early days of florescent lighting, the light quality was only "horrible" for most people if either you bought the cheapest tubes or you tried to use them until they burned out completely. (Although, I admit, as someone sensitive to higher frequency flicker than most, it was pretty rare that people would change them early enough for me. They were still cheaper, overall, than incandescents, even changing them as soon as I did.)

  46. Steven Jones


    You are a patronising git, but then you probably know that. If you are worried about toxic chemicals, then worry about those emitted by coal fired power stations. Now quite apart from the fact that fluorescent lights can be treated as hazard waste and therefore the release into the environment can be controlled (and there are moves afoot to reduce the mercury content), then consider the following fact. In the US in 2006 coal powered generating stations put something like 50 tonnes of mercury straight into the atmosphere, or about the same amount as there is in 9 billion CFLs. With the population of the US being about 300 million, then that would mean scrapping the equivalent of 30 CFLs per person per year to equal that.

    In fact if you take the mercury put into the atmosphere by the higher power usage of the incandescent bulb with a typical US mix of energy generation by fuel, there's not so much difference between the that and the mercury used in a CFL over the lifetime of the latter. Follow that up with the ability to control the release of the CFL mercury into the environment by suitable reprocessing, and that the Hg content is being reduced, then this particular item is a non-issue. I don't recall anybody complaining much about mercury in fluorescent tubes until CFLs came along.

    In any case, mercury is not easily absorbed into the body unless it is in an organic form. There have been recent examinations on mercuray amalgams used in fillings to show that there has been no detrimental effects on people. I wouldn't go around handling the stuff in a calaier manner, but there is some perspective required here.

  47. Eddy Ito Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Do the bulbs really matter?

    These regulations are about as daft as the "water saving" shower heads that have been foisted upon the unthinking public. Some will just complain there isn't enough water coming through and others will pay a little more and install a tee, a couple of elbows, some nipples and a second shower head. So what will it be glow sticks, gaslights or just blast the mantle with a laser?

    Paris because she knows all about elbows, nipples and multiple heads.

  48. Neil

    CFL - No use to me

    I have precisely one fitting in my house that could take a CFL. The rest are either halogens, on dimmer switches, or are fittings that fit flush with the ceilings and would look ridiculous with a stupid CFL twizzle stick sticking out of it.

    Actually just thought of another in a chandelier that uses the mini golf-ball-fittings - don't know if they make them for that or not. I suppose they probably do. And at a few quid each replacing all 6 bulbs in there would be stupidly expensive.

  49. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    I can't believe the numb nutz responses...

    First, this is a good thing. Hence the thumbs up.

    With respect as to the effects on the longevity of the bulb, I don't think they've really looked at it. There are a couple of tests, (on/off patterns and continuous output), that you can use.

    Did they measure if there was any increased heat generated with the increase in light? The article didn't say. So if you can take a 60W bulb that still uses 60W of electricity, generates the same amount of heat but yields the equivalent of a 100W bulb, you have a *good* thing.

    Go check out OSHA on what to do if a CFL bulb breaks. Sure the odds of it happening are slim, but they do happen and you have to be careful on how you clean it up.

    Also if you check out the wattage used by a CFL with respect to that of an incandescent , you'll find that the 40% efficiency increase is really a good thing and would make the incandescent bulb a better buy when you consider (cost, efficiency, and safety)

    With respect to LEDs, I'm still waiting.

    I tried an experiment in my laundry room. I replaced the two incandescent 60W bulbs in the light fixture with two LED bulbs that you can purchase from HomeDepot or Ace Hardware. These are pretty much the 1st gen bulbs and they consume about 1.5 W per bulb and are supposed to be a replacement for 40 Watt bulbs. Since I usually use 1 60W bulb, 2 40W bulbs should produce enough light, right?

    Not quite. Not enough light. Also I was having problems with the LED bulbs burning out when I would turn the lights on and off. At $10.00 a pop, not cheap and after the first couple of bulbs, the guys at the neighborhood store started giving me dirty looks....

    (Note these are LED bulbs that are meant to replace the incandescent bulb.)

    Until the brightness increases, and the price drops, I'm not going to add any more to the house.)

    I think that the remarkable thing is that this is probably one of the first new approaches in to increasing the efficiency of the incandescent bulb in years.

    So thumbs up. If you need a 60W bulb that has a 40% energy savings, it means that it would only draw 36 W to provide the same amount of light that an older incandescent light would. And when you compare the price, its still a lot cheaper than LEDs.

    Think Green but be Safe!


  50. Tom

    Waste of time

    This is all a waste of time. The government is only banning them because they have to reach the targets set for carbon emissions. The problem is, producing energy saving bulbs damages the environment more than making normal bulbs when you take into account the increased complexity of an energy saving bulb and the chemicals used. All the government is doing is shifting our carbon emissions to another country which produces the new bulbs (likely China, or Taiwan) and this does nothing in real terms in the way of saving the environment. Its just ticking things off a check-list of things to do for the sake of it!


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