MIT researchers resurrect the incandescent lamp with nano-tech

January 12, 2016 // By Graham Prophet
Work by a team at MIT and at Purdue University aims, in the words of the Institute’s press statement, to, “combine the warm look of traditional light bulbs with 21st-century energy efficiency.” The work is in the field of “nanophotonics” and although the MIT press statement majors on light bulb emission, it may also have applicability to other energy conversion technologies.

The new structure is a conventional in-vacuum filament that has an outer coating or surround of a secondary structure that captures radiation outside the visible (presumably, mostly in the infra-red) and reflects it back to the filament to be re-absorbed and re-emitted as visible light. These structures, a form of photonic crystal, are made of Earth-abundant elements and can be made using conventional material-deposition technology: they appear to be acting both as reflector at IR wavelengths and band-pass or high-pass spectral filter, in the visible. The (normally wasted) heat is returned to the filament and is additive with the resistive heating of the electric current in raising the filament temperature.

The reserachers quote theoretical efficiencies of as much as 40% although devices made so far have reached around 6%. That, however, is already comparable with light sources such as some compact fluorescent and present-day LED lamps.

From the MIT statement;

Incandescent lighting and its warm, familiar glow is well over a century old yet survives virtually unchanged in homes around the world. That is changing fast, however, as regulations aimed at improving energy efficiency are phasing out the old bulbs in favour of more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and newer light-emitting diode bulbs (LEDs).

Incandescent bulbs, commercially developed by [pioneers including] Thomas Edison (and still used by cartoonists as the symbol of inventive insight), work by heating a thin tungsten wire to temperatures of around 2,700 degrees Celsius. That hot wire emits what is known as black body radiation, a very broad spectrum of light that provides a warm look and a faithful rendering of all colours in a scene. More than 95 percent of the energy that goes into them is wasted, most of it as heat. That’s why country after country has banned or is phasing out the inefficient technology. Now, researchers at MIT and Purdue University may have found a way to change all that.

The new findings are reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology by three MIT professors — Marin Soljačić, professor of physics; John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Professor of physics; and Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor in Power Engineering — as well as MIT principal research scientist Ivan Celanovic, postdoc Ognjen Ilic, and Purdue physics professor (and MIT alumnus) Peter Bermel PhD ’07.

The key is to create a two-stage process, the researchers report. The second step - “recycling” the previously lost energy - make a dramatic difference in how efficiently the system converts electricity into light. One quantity that characterises a lighting source is the so-called luminous efficiency, which takes into account the response of the human eye. Whereas the luminous efficiency of conventional incandescent lights is between 2 and 3 percent, that of fluorescents (including CFLs) is between 7 and 15 percent, and that of most compact LEDs between 5 and 15 percent, the new two-stage incandescents could reach efficiencies as high as 40 percent, the team says.

The first proof-of-concept units made by the team do not yet reach that level, achieving about 6.6 percent efficiency. But even that preliminary result matches the efficiency of some of today’s CFLs and LEDs, they point out. And it is already a threefold improvement over the efficiency of today’s incandescents.