Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Mercury

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Courtesy of Lumex Instruments Group

In light of many countries legislating the retirement of Thomas Edison’s beloved incandescent lamps in favor of more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps, it is important to reassure the consumer that this phase-out is both necessary and safe. In order to properly illuminate the concerns regarding compact fluorescent lamps one must first understand their predecessor the incandescent lamp. The incandescent lamp generates visible light by heating a small filament to a very high temperature in a bulb filled with inert gases.

Fluorescent by contrast works by subjecting mercury vapor to an electric current, exciting the vapors into emitting UV light which the phosphor coating in turn transforms into visible light.

The issue arises from the unfortunate necessity for mercury in this equation, which complicates the disposal process when the lamps inevitably fail.


But how legitimate is the fear which the phrase “contains mercury” strikes into the consumer’s heart?
The primary misconception regarding the transition from inefficient incandescent to compact fluorescent lamps is that the net amount of mercury dispersed into the environment will increase. Comparing the two, CFLs introduce small amounts of mercury into the ecosystem while incandescent introduce zero. This immediately creates a strong argument for the use of incandescent; however this is only a fraction of the story. A single incandescent consumes quadruple the power which a single CFL would consume, which means that power companies have to create more electricity to compensate for this disparity. In the case of coal power specifically, far more mercury is produced to simple providing the extra power necessary for the use of Incandescent bulbs. As CFLs produce 50-70 lumens per watt, whilst Incandescent only produces 10-19 lumens per watt. The longevity of CFLs should also be considered, typically lasting 10 times longer than Incandescent bulbs. Therefore dramatically reducing the quantity of incoming waste, and allowing disposal specialists to focus on the more complex and safe recycling methods. CFLs are certainly both an environmentally friendly and consumer friendly product, for they serve admirably as a long overdue overhaul of the electrical lamp.

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