Engineering a Light Bulb Revolution

Ed Hammer says what people really need to be concerned about is the overall energy savings as well as the environmental hazards associated with light bulbs -- from manufacturing to landfill.
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Don’t tell Ed Hammer he can’t do something because he’ll likely prove you wrong. Forty years ago as a GE lighting engineer at NELA labs, Hammer was told his idea for a new energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) wouldn’t work. No one had been able to transform large gas-filled energy-efficient lights into a practical shape that fit the common table lamp.

But in the '70s, a national energy crisis was in full swing. Engineers knew fluorescent lights were much more efficient than old incandescents and would cut consumers' skyrocketing light bills. But there was just one problem; how could you make them?

Hammer had an idea. He tinkered in the lab with a new double-helix design, successfully bending a 25 watt gas-filled glass tube into a curly shape with a common light bulb-sized fixture. The next day he brought in a table lamp from home, twisted in the strange looking bulb and voila! “I screwed it in and they liked it,” he remembers. The only problem was, how would you make them? “I told them they would need 14,000 glass blowers,” he chuckles. So the project sat on the shelf.

Fast forward 20 years. The U.S. had just gone to war in the Gulf in the early 1990s, and energy prices were high. A young entrepreneur and former U.S. college student named Ellis Yan saw an opportunity; why not make CFLs in China where labor was cheap? So he took Ed Hammer’s design to his native country and hired thousands of workers to bend the glass tubes into bulbs by hand. Yan’s company’s, TCP Inc., then figured out a way to automate the process, and within a few years millions of energy-efficient light bulbs poured into stores across the globe. A lighting revolution was born.

Ed Hammer with his first CFL now in Smithsonian Photo courtesy TCP, Inc

Hammer, who shares the same last name as Thomas Edison’s chief engineer, easily could rest on his laurels today. But approaching 80, he’s not even close to quitting (check out his blog: Drop the Hammer). The soft-spoken engineer is too excited about the prospects ahead. He just can’t stop thinking about new innovative ways to produce lumens for less.

So on the drawing boards are all kinds of energy-efficient incandescents, which will slowly replace the old energy-hogging incandescent bulbs born over 100 years ago. There are new super efficient LED lights that literally last a lifetime, light bulbs that you likely will take with you every time you move. LEDs are the light technologies most big manufacturers like GE and Philips are investing in heavily. And their prices will steadily drop saving people more.

But Hammer thinks cost-efficient CFLs still have a bright future. Along with other engineers at TCP, he’s helped design new dimming and quick start technologies that have eliminated some of the nagging problems associated with the curly-qued bulbs he first created. And the new CFL’s are encased in glass bulbs so they no longer look any different from a traditional incandescent. Their price tags are coming down too -- and so will consumer's light bills after they make the switch.

Bottom line is there's a limitless future for lighting technology. After all, people will always need to see in the dark. One of the most exciting projects Hammer's helped design is just starting to roll off the drawing boards and into stores. The bulbs are new CFLs embedded with a computer chip that can be controlled by computers or even a simple cell phone, squeezing the maximum amount of efficiency out of each watt. “This will revolutionize everything about low wattage consumption,” he says.

One of Hammer’s pet peeves is what he considers over-blown fears about mercury content in CFLs, an opinion many engineers share. The amount of mercury used in CFLs is miniscule compared to the mercury amalgam most people have in their mouths, Hammer says, and he thinks federal agencies have exaggerated their health risks in the home. “The kind of mercury used in lamps is non-toxic. It’s so nonsensical that some people are paranoid about them. It’s another example of politics being more important than science.”

Ed Hammer and bulb testing at TCP's Ohio lab Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Hammer says what people really need to be concerned about is the overall energy savings as well as the environmental hazards associated with light bulbs -- from manufacturing to landfill. If you look at the total cradle-to-grave costs, energy-efficient light bulbs leave their incandescent competitors in the dark, Hammer says. And though the cost for some materials such as rare earths have risen recently, consumers still will save up to $50 per bulb in lower energy costs over a CFL’s average lifespan.

But another benefit is one that no one thought possible a decade ago. As new bulb making techniques are automated, more plants and jobs will be springing up here in the US. So Hammer’s odd-shaped bulb no one could make cheaply in the U.S. four decades ago now can be an American job creator. “It’s a good story that gets quantitatively better,” he smiles.

But the story is far from over. At TCP's labs outside Cleveland, Hammer and a team of engineers continue to plug away on new energy-saving designs, searching for the light bulb holy grail; a long-lasting, eye-pleasing light that can be made at a miniscule cost. Here, the father of the CFL's legacy endures. His engineering efforts have not only saved people money but reduced the need for more power plants. That alone will slash millions of pounds pounds of climate changing greenhouse gasses from threatening us all.

Hammer says that's a big reason he keeps at it. “There’s a lot of art and science and detail in lamps that require people in the business with experience,” he says. “I enjoy what I’m doing because it will have even a bigger impact on my grandkids.”

Those grandkids -- and future generations -- can thank Ed Hammer for starting the light bulb revolution. It took one man to prove something could be done with a little extra engineering skill and creativity. It will take the rest of us to put his energy-saving technology to use. Then we can all enjoy a sustainable, light-filled future.

After all, that's what American ingenuity is all about.

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