New Ideas in Lighting Get Closer to Market

Diane Cardwell

Ever since government regulations began phasing out the traditional light bulb in 2012, the once-simple visit to the lighting aisle has become an exercise in navigating a dizzying array of choices and terminologies, especially for new kinds of compact fluorescents and LEDs.

Now, those choices are about to become even more complicated. Two start-up companies are poised to begin selling bulbs that use entirely different technologies — one borrowed from heavy industry and the other from old-fashioned televisions — but meet the new energy standards.

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Whether they can capture customers who remain stubbornly wedded to incandescent light is anybody's guess. But that both have come this far is an indication of how unsettled the consumer lighting market remains, despite years of promotion for the new energy-saving options.

John Goscha, Founder and CEO of the Finally Light Bulb Company, inspecting new light bulbs that feature Acandescent technology in Woburn, MA on March 10 , 2014.
Rick Friedman | The New York Times

"It's going to be a really long putt to try to replace the incandescent," said Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "People hate change of any kind. We make light sources today that are better than incandescent by any metric at delivering the benefits you're expecting from lighting. But it's different."

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Indeed, incandescent bulbs — whether leftover store inventory of standard lights or halogen models that meet the new regulations, which went fully into effect in January — outsell other types by far at big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe's, lighting executives there say. In the last quarter of 2013, according to statistics from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, incandescent bulbs accounted for 65 percent of shipments from manufacturers, with the remainder consisting of mainly compact fluorescents.

Even as government officials, manufacturers and retailers focus their efforts on improving and marketing LED technology, researchers and entrepreneurs have been pursuing others, convinced that none of the options on the market offer consumers a close enough match to the familiar light quality at a low enough price. LED bulbs, for example, offer light quality that many experts say is equal to or better than the traditional incandescent bulbs, but their price — often $10 a bulb or less after starting out several years ago at about twice that — has scared off consumers.

"We have evolved as a species under daylight during the day and the incandescent light at night in the form of fires and candles and then oil lamps and finally incandescent lighting," said Konstantinos Papamichael, co-director of the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis. "I would find it hard for people to enthusiastically move into new technologies without getting something similar to what they have."

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So at a small demonstration lab here, just outside Boston, a glass artist in dark goggles blows specially designed tubes, one tiny component of a new bulb to be called Finally when it makes it to store shelves. A few yards away, a scientist examines multicolored graphs representing the spectrum of colors the bulb emits. And over in a corner, dozens of the lights glow upside down, part of the company's quality control.

It is all part of the quest of John Goscha, who already has one successful start-up company under his belt, to build a better light bulb. Mr. Goscha, 30, started a custom golf-club business in high school and founded IdeaPaint, which allows most surfaces to function as dry-erase boards, as an undergraduate at Babson College.

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But IdeaPaint grew up, he said, and about three years ago he was eager to do something new.

"I took a couple of months and just tried to kind of open my blinders and say, 'Hey what's going on in the world,' " he said. Around that time, a friend mentioned the incandescent phaseout, of which he had been unaware. Unhappy as a consumer with compact fluorescents and LEDs, he said, he decided to pursue making an alternative. "I thought, 'I don't really want those and there have got to be other people who don't want those either,' " he said.

Looking for the solution, he began attending conferences and meetings and enlisted the advice of Victor Roberts, a former General Electric engineer who eventually joined the venture. On a flight to Hong Kong, the two talked about induction, a technology that has many applications, including electric motors in home appliances and construction cranes because it is long-lasting. But it had not yet been widely adapted for home use in lighting because it was difficult and expensive to fit the electronics needed for bright, omnidirectional light inside a regular bulb.

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With the advent of smaller transistors and other advances, though, the company, which has hired engineers from established light makers like Osram Sylvania and Philips, shrank the apparatus to a three-inch antenna wrapped in copper wire. That creates a magnetic field inside the bulb that prods mercury to produce ultraviolet light, which in turn creates visible light when it interacts with a special phosphor coating the glass.

The result, to be manufactured in India, has almost all of its regulatory approvals. It can be disposed of in landfills despite its mercury content because the amount of metal is minuscule and in solid, not liquid, form. It also has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission because the antenna is technically a radio receiver, albeit a weak one. Mr. Goscha plans to sell the bulb for $8, making it competitive with some of the cheapest LEDs on the market.

But although it has shown enough promise to have attracted about $19 million from investors, including some of Mr. Goscha's Babson professors and interest from big-box retailers, its path is not yet cleared.

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Take, for instance, the Vu1, a bulb that was supposed to come to market more than three years ago. It was available for a time on the Lowe's website but had production problems and was withdrawn. With new manufacturing operations in China rather than the Czech Republic, said William B. Smith, the company's chief executive, it is only now ready to begin shipping to stores.

"This is all self-inflicted self-hatred," Mr. Smith said jokingly about the company's missteps, which included losing Wall Street backing after missing too many deadlines. "Whenever you move a technology from one country to another, it never goes as planned." Mr. Smith said he was largely financing the company himself while it struggled to get on better footing.

The Vu1, which will be available first for use in recessed fixtures, uses a technology like that of cathode ray tubes in televisions, a "state-of-the-art 1940s technology," Mr. Smith said, in which electrons hit a cocktail of phosphors on the glass, which then glows.

But the light's long journey to stores shows how difficult it can be to make a new light bulb and how elusive the promise of new technologies can be.

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Researchers, seeing a market that is wide open, are still working on even more technologies, including plasma and so-called organic LEDs, which spread light over a flexible surface.

"Twenty years from now, we'll walk into a room and OLED is going to be covering your entire ceiling and it's going to dim automatically and it's going to be able to figure out your mood and it's great," Mr. Smith said. "Thanks, Captain Kirk. But we're not there."

—By Diane Cardwell of The New York Times