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Environmental Impact


If all of the world's light bulbs were replaced with energy-efficient LEDs for a period of 10 years, researchers at the US Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute claim, oil consumption would be cut by 962 million barrels, removing the need for 280 power stations, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 10 billion tonnes, and ultimately result in financial savings of $1.83 trillion.

Rensselaer, known for fundamental LED research, has been looking at environmental impacts.

"What the transistor meant to the development of electronics, the LED means to the field of photonics. This core device has the potential to revolutionise how we use light," said Professor Fred Schubert in a paper: "Transcending the replacement paradigm of solid-state lighting," published in Optics Express late last year.

The paper, co-written with researcher Jong Kyu Kim, is excellent, contains predictions on what LED technology is likely to exist, and is available for free at the OpticsInfoBase website. .

  • Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in U.S. landfills amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste.
  • In 1992, mercury-containing lamps were added to the United States' Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) list of hazardous substances. (The EPA's regulatory threshold of 2 mg./litre is usually exceeded by mercury-containing lamps).
  • The Mercury from one fluorescent bulb can pollute 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels for drinking

Mercury Utilization:

    Almost all modern high output light sources depend on using mercury inside the lamps for operation.  When considering the environmental impact of the mercury in lighting, we must take three factors into consideration:

  • The type of mercury (solid or liquid) which is present in the lamps,
  • The amount of mercury present in a particular type of lamp, and
  • The lifespan of the lamp which will determine the amount of mercury used per hour of operation.

     Liquid mercury, which is the most common form of mercury used in lighting, represents the greatest hazard.  If a lamp is broken, the liquid mercury can find its way into cracks in concrete flooring, the fibers of carpets, or into spaces in other floor coverings.  Over time, the mercury will evaporate into he atmosphere causing a local “hot spot” of low level contamination.  The more liquid mercury present in a lamp, the longer the resulting contamination will last.

“If the total amount of mercury contained in a typical fluorescent tube (approximately 20 milligrams), were to mix completely and evenly in a body of water, it would be enough to contaminate around 20,000 litres of water beyond Health Canada limits for safe drinking water (0.001 milligrams of mercury per litre of water)” - Environment Canada [15]

    Mercury can be compounded with other metals, into a solid form called an amalgam - this is the type of mercury used in induction lamps.  It is similar to the once widely used dental amalgam in tooth fillings.  The solid form of mercury poses much less of an environmental problem than liquid mercury.  The amalgam form of mercury is also less of a heath hazard as it is not as readily absorbed into the skin (than the liquid form) should one come into contact with the amalgam - it has low "bio-availability". The small slug or pellet of amalgam can easily be recovered (always wear disposable gloves) in the case of induction lamp breakage and therefore can be disposed of properly with little or no risk of creating a locally contaminated area.  The solid mercury amalgam is also simpler to recover for recycling at end of lamp life.

Induction lamps use the least amount of mercury of any lamp technology, when considered based on both initial quantity and amount used per 20,000 hours of lamp life.  Induction lamps are therefore much more environmentally friendly since they use very little mercury over their lifespan.  Further, the mercury is in solid amalgam form reducing contamination in the case of accidental breakage and making recovery for recycling simpler.
    The chart below puts this information into visual form for the most common types of industrial, commercial and retail lighting technologies.

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