When Congress passed a new energy law two years ago, obituaries were written for the incandescent light bulb.
The law set tough efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2012, that no traditional incandescent bulb on the market could meet, and a century-old technology that helped create the modern world seemed to be doomed.
But as it turns out, the obituaries were premature.
Researchers across the country, including in Santa Rosa, have been racing to breathe new life into Thomas Edison's light bulb, a pursuit that accelerated with the new legislation. Amid that footrace, one company is already marketing limited quantities of incandescent bulbs that meet the 2012 standard, and researchers are promising a wave of innovative products over the next few years.
Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.
"There's a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly," said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. "There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades."
The first bulbs to emerge from this push, Philips Lighting's Halogena Energy Savers, are expensive compared with older incandescents. They sell for $5 apiece and more, compared with as little as 25 cents for standard bulbs.
But they are also 30 percent more efficient than older bulbs.
Philips claims that a 70-watt Halogena Energy Saver gives off the same amount of light as a traditional 100-watt bulb and lasts about three times longer, eventually paying for itself.
The line, for now sold exclusively at Home Depot and on Amazon.com, is not as efficient as compact fluorescent light bulbs, which can use 75 percent less energy than old-style bulbs. But the Energy Saver line is finding favor with ecologically conscious consumers who dislike the light from fluorescent bulbs or are bothered by such factors as their slow startup time and mercury content.
"We're experiencing double-digit growth, and we're continuing to expand our assortment," said Jorge Fernandez, the executive who decides what bulbs to stock at Home Depot. "Most of the people that buy that bulb have either bought a CFL and didn't like it, or have identified an area that CFLs don't work in."
For lighting researchers involved in trying to save the incandescent bulb, the goal is to come up with one that matches the energy savings of fluorescent bulbs while keeping the qualities that many consumers seem to like in incandescents, like the color of the light and the ease of using them with dimmers.
"Due to the 2007 federal energy bill that phases out inefficient incandescent light bulbs beginning in 2012, we are finally seeing a race" to develop more efficient ones, said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Some of the leading work is under way at Deposition Sciences in Santa Rosa. Its technology is a key component of the new Philips bulb line.
Normally, only a small portion of the energy used by an incandescent bulb is converted into light, while the rest is emitted as heat. Deposition Sciences applies special reflective coatings to gas-filled capsules that surround the bulb's filament.
The coatings act as a sort of heat mirror that bounces heat back to the filament, where it is transformed to light.