The future’s bright

Europe’s hardware and DIY stores are preparing for a last rush this weekend to buy old-style 100W incandescent light bulbs. From Tuesday they will be not be available anywhere in the EU – victims of the battle against global warming. Lower wattage incandescent bulbs will be phased out over the next three years.

Their disappearance at the behest of Brussels has provoked protests from a wide range of traditionalists, who dislike the light emitted by new low-energy bulbs, besides the predictable howls from Eurosceptics and climate change deniers.

I too prefer the slightly warmer glow of an incandescent bulb. Whatever the manufacturers say – and I agree that there has been a huge improvement in energy-saving bulbs over the past couple of years – they do not quite match traditional lamps in the speed with which they come on or, more importantly, in the quality of their illumination.

Indeed I was tempted to join the hoarders who have laid in dozens of old-style bulbs. But, for a firm believer in the battle against global warming, that would have been outrageous hypocrisy. The phase-out is not just a token gesture, as some people seem to believe – it will cut European emissions of carbon dioxide by millions of tonnes a year.

Creating a huge market for low-energy bulbs gives manufacturers the incentive to spend money on research and development to improve their quality further. Today’s energy-saving bulbs are mainly what the industry calls compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs, as well as some (slightly less efficient) halogen bulbs. Given two or three more years of technical improvement CFLs really will match incandescent bulbs.

But the great hope for the near future is the light emitting diode or LED. This is far more versatile – and energy efficient – than the CFL and will produce instant illumination in any colour you want, from stark white to a warm mock-incandescent glow.

LEDs for domestic lighting are just coming onto the market and within a few years they will be ubiquitous. Then only the most nostalgic will be yearning for the incandescent bulbs of the past.

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The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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