Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Dim Future of Light Bulbs

If government forecasts for the final four months of 2009 hold, this year will see the first time since 1949 that energy demand has decreased in consecutive years. Congress could very well pass a bill that would mandate decreased carbon dioxide emissions. So-called "Green Industry" is one of the few sectors of the economy adding jobs. We are seeing increased serious attention given to radical ideas involving alternative energy, including the notion that one day we will drive automobiles that are not powered by gasoline. In short, society seems more receptive than ever to reconsidering how we use our world's resources.

Yet I have yet to see anyone suggest that the work of Thomas Edison will ever be obsolete. In all the various visions of the future I have read about or seen rendered, utopian or dystopian, I have never seen anyone suggest that electrical lighting will ever be replaced. But is the light bulb, now well over 100 years old, truly the pinnacle of illumination? Or have become so accustomed to it that we fail to envision that there can be any improvement other than more efficient models of the same thing?

Everyone alive has always lived in a world where nighttime travelers can perceive the location of cities by their collective illumination. But in relative time, it wasn't that long ago that when it got dark, the horizon stayed dark in all directions. Cleveland became the first U.S. city (and second in the world) to have electrical street lighting, in 1879. Could there be a time when cities are once again indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside?

I think in order to conceive of how there can be a paradigm shift, we need only consider the concept of insect repellent (or "bug spray," if you will). We could build gigantic towers in strategic locations that would emit vapors in order to ward off unwanted vermin, or we could empower individuals to strategically ensconce themselves in protective substances. Following this model, what if instead of seeking to illumine from without, we shifted to illuminating from within? And no, I don't mean in a metaphorical, abstract, or supernatural sense. I mean, what if we could scientifically empower each person to project their own light source, with greater clarity and less demand on energy?

The obvious application that comes to mind is some form of night vision glasses. Right now, the battery power required in military-grade goggles would be too much of an environmental liability, but could a contemporary Edison invent a set of night vision glasses that could perhaps charge up with solar power during the day? And then there is this intriguing proposal, submitted to a contest sponsored by Popular Science over five years ago (and mustering a runner-up prize): night vision contact lenses, powered by blinking. I think if the full attention of both government and private resources were given over to this issue, the future would be literally brighter than ever. But that might be too much to hope for, given the inertia of the status quo. So maybe we need a secret, powerful cabal to try to effect this radical idea. We could call them "The Illuminati."


Anonymous Tim said...

It's not very high tech, but we could start using daylight a lot better than we are right now:

10:44 PM  

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