MIT Scientists "Recycle Light" To Make The Most Efficient Light Bulb Ever

Some have deemed old-fashioned light bulbs as good as dead. But researchers at MIT have devised an incandescent light that's greener than ever.

Incandescent light bulbs are making a comeback. In the 136 years since Thomas Edison patented them in 1880, they have fallen out fashion in favor of more energy-efficient alternatives. Indeed, the United States and many other countries have been passing legislation to do away with them throughout recent years. CNN even published an obituary for the old-fashioned candle-replacement. Yet researchers at MIT have conceived of an incandescent light bulb that would be competitive with the most efficient available alternatives.


Traditional light bulbs sparked people to seek greener options for good reasons: they were very consequentially energy inefficient. 95-98% of the energy they use does not even go toward producing light; it is merely felt as heat or given off as infrared radiation. Considering that about a quarter of all electrical energy generated is used toward producing light, good ideas for a greener world must involve alternatives to the energy-draining incandescent light bulb.

Present-day bulb substitutes are no match for the new incandescent light developed at MIT when it comes to electrical efficiency. Fluorescent lights, for example, produce the same amount of light with about a third or a quarter of the energy. And LEDs are 15% more energy-efficient than fluorescent lights. The net improvement over the traditional light bulb, however, is ultimately not huge: whereas incandescent light bulbs use up to 5% of their energy intake on producing visible light, LEDs use 14%. The version of the bulb designed at MIT is much more impressive, with 40% of the energy shining bright. This is achieved by recapturing much of the otherwise lost energy without impeding the light produced. The researchers aptly refer to this method as “light recycling.”

The potential savings for both the planet and consumers are promising. Sarah Knapton, journalist and science editor at The Telegraph, reports:

The Energy Saving Trust calculates that typical living room usage of a 60-watt incandescent lightbulb over a year would cost £7.64. Using an equivalent energy efficient fluorescent or ‘CFL’ lightbulb would cost £1.53 per year, while an LED would cost just £1.27. 

But if the new bulbs live up to expectations they would cost under 50p a year to run and even improve health.

Nostalgia, strained wallets and the environment might no longer need to compete among one another to choose a light-source. Indeed, these new bulbs may even ameliorate the problems existing lights cause when trying to fall asleep. This idea has only bright sides. 

It's an important place-holding step as we transition further toward renewable energy sources:

 

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."