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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Good for the Environment and Good for Workers

Air Date: Week of

Joseph Romm, author of the book Lean and Clean Management, speaks with host Steve Curwood about ways businesses can boost profits and productivity while reducing pollution and waste.


CURWOOD: One way for you to cut your personal or your company's expenses is to use the energy efficiency and lighting that Joseph Romm described. But it's not an easy task. Fluorescent lights are efficient but many people don't like their flicker and their color. Incandescent bulbs give off more soothing light, but waste a lot of energy. Both can have mercury or other poisons that become hazards when they burn out. Now, a Maryland company says it can make lights that are relatively non-toxic and cheap to run, and that come close to matching natural sunlight. Martha Honey went to the Department of Energy in Washington, where they are testing prototypes of the new sulfur bulb.

(Echoes within a hallway)

ERVIN: We're talking about the sulfur lamp. This is it.

HONEY: Christine Ervin an Assistant Secretary of State at the Department of Energy, holds a clear quartz globe the size of a golf ball that's perched at the end of a thin glass tube. It looks like one of those all-day lollipops. But Ervin, who's in charge of energy efficiency at the DOE, says this sulfur lamp may well revolutionize the lighting industry.

ERVIN: The sulfur lamp is perhaps one of the most important scientific breakthroughs since Thomas Edison created the light bulb.

HONEY: Ervin explains that the sulfur bulb is filled with two benign elements: sulfur and argon, which are heated by a microwave generator similar to those found in kitchen ovens. The bulb gives off an intense light resembling natural sunlight. The light is then channeled down a long plastic pipe lined with reflective material, and emitted through small holes in the tube. Ervin points to a sulfur lamp prototype installed outside the Department of Energy's Washington headquarters.

ERVIN: We've got 2 of these sulfur bulbs at either end of a 240-foot light pipe. It creates 4 times the amount of light that we had, at one-third the cost, and replaced 260 of these high-intensity bulbs. Multiply that by many, many more applications and you can see what kind of significant environmental improvement there is.

(Outside traffic noises)

HONEY: Ervin says that if used for outside lighting alone, the sulfur bulb could cut US electricity costs by 10 to 20 percent, or by $400 to $800 million a year. During the day, most people passing by the Department of Energy are oblivious to the experimental lighting system running over their heads. But at night, the largely deserted area is brightly lit. On one cold winter night, several people stop to examine the long, thin tube, including this woman from India.

WOMAN: I'm impressed.

HONEY: Is this the kind of thing that could be useful in India?

WOMAN: Definitely. We really have so much of, you know, need for saving on our power. So it's definitely going to be of use.

HONEY: Several students are also impressed, but they note a few problems.

STUDENT 1: It's a bit noisy at the ends, but it's pretty bright and it seems pretty efficient.

STUDENT 2: It's a little greener, and I wouldn't necessarily want it in my house. But I think that if they can, you know, perfect this technology of it, then it can be useful.

HONEY: Over at the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, Program Manager Gene Foley is impressed with the sulfur bulb.

FOLEY: The biggest advantage is, it looks like it is indeed going to be a very efficient light source. From what I've read, the bulb itself should in fact last forever.

HONEY: The sulfur bulb has no wire electrodes to burn out, which is the most common cause of lamp failure. And Foley says, unlike conventional bulbs, the sulfur bulb also contains no mercury, or other toxic substances, and emits much less harmful ultraviolet radiation. But he warns there are some kinks. Also in contrast with the sulfur bulb itself, the microwave generator does not last very long.

FOLEY: The so-called magnetron, which is a unit which creates the microwaves, at this point only lasts 10,000 hours. That, compared to a regular high-pressure sodium lamp, which right now lasts approximately 24,000 hours.

HONEY: The sulfur bulb was invented, and is now being refined, at Fusion Lighting in Rockville, MD. Vice President Kent Kipling says he longs for the quieter days before the Energy Department asked them to install the sulfur bulb prototype.

KIPLING: When those lamps were turned on and people saw the real impact of this lighting, you know, the response was really overwhelming. We've gotten over 700 phone calls in here, so we really weren't prepared for this type of reaction. You know, we're trying to get back to our knitting.

HONEY: And that means further research to eliminate the kinks. Kipling says the company plans to have the lamp on the market by late 1995. Its first applications will be for large spaces requiring high-quality, high-intensity lighting: shopping malls, warehouses, and aircraft hangars. And, Kipling says, he expects that somewhere further out, the sulfur bulb will be available for use in homes and small offices. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Honey in Washington.



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