FAQ: The End of the Light Bulb as We Know It

More efficient lighting will be mandated starting in 2012, so you can kiss Edison's invention goodbye.

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi signs the energy bill with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (L).

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By the way, don't think that incandescent bulbs are mercury free. In the United States, the chances are at least 50 percent that their light is generated by a coal-powered plant featuring mercury as well as other types of pollution. Popular Mechanics recently crunched the numbers to find that even if the mercury in a CFL was directly released into the atmosphere, an incandescent would still contribute almost double that amount of mercury into the environment over its lifetime.

Isn't there efficient lighting without mercury?


Yes. By 2012, the chances are good that consumers will have many more options to replace incandescent bulbs. Manufacturers already are deploying advanced incandescent bulbs that are efficient enough to stay on the market after 2012, although they are not yet as efficient as CFLs. Even more exciting are the developments with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are jazzing up holiday lighting. The European electronics firm Philips this year acquired several pioneering small technology companies and plans a big push to make LEDs practical for ordinary lighting purposes. The lights on the New Year's Eve Times Square Ball could one day brighten your home. LEDs last even longer than CFLs and will make bulb buying more like an appliance purchase than a throw-away item. Is Thomas Edison turning over in his grave?


Perhaps, but the incandescent bulb has had a good run, with the technology little changed since 1879, when Edison produced light with a carbonized thread from his wife's sewing box. The breakthrough that ushered civilization out of the candle era was so revolutionary that the light bulb itself became the culture's iconic image to illustrate any thought, brainstorm, or idea. But energy-efficient bulbs are a better idea, says Andrew deLaski, director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. "It's hugely important," he says. "A 60 to 70 percent reduction in light bulb energy use will save as much energy annually as that used by all the homes in Texas last year." That's a big savings.