Update — Fluorescent Lights / China

This is an update on the law banning incandescent lighting, see Using Fluorescent Lights -A Compilation.   The New York Times (2011 Sep16) had an article by Keith Bradsher in the Business section,  China Consolidates Grip on Rare Earths. The Chinese shut-down of rare earth elements is having a real impact on western nations.

Rare earths are elements are vital for the phosphor screens (light generation) and emission coatings on the filaments that stimulate the mercury to start the process.  Availability has drastically decreased, causing the price of compact bulbs to pop up like a jack-in-the-box.

The article quotes a GE press release comparing the price increase to a $2.00 cup of coffee.   With the same raw material price increase, such a cup would cost $24.55.  The actual prices of bulbs, though, have “only” risen about 30% because most costs reside in the cheap parts, ultra low labor, and handling throughout the sales chain.  If rare earths became totally impossible to obtain, CFLs would just not be expensive, they would be gone; nominated for inclusion into our “Technology Scene” category.

The current 3 month shut-down is explained as a means to allow mines to install pollution control equipment.   That is nice, Chinese mines are world renown for the poisonous local wastes they generate, and the lives they take for convenience. I am sure a bit of cleanup will be appreciated by the peasantry dying by the sludge ponds.

China is the main source for many CFL bulbs, as had been commented here many times (for examples, click Categories on the right side of the screen,  click Technology, then look at Fluorescents 1 and 4A).  We have a major issue – we have mandated the US ability to generate indoor lighting be subordinated to a single country, the People’s Republic Of China.  Clinton, Bush/Chaney and Obama allowed/encouraged the shutdown of U.S. bulb and tube manufacturing and the shifting of the root technology across the sea to China.

Now we are by law, at the mercy of these communist super-Capitalists.  My, my! What 40 years can do to a person:  Passionate ideologues for the Great Leap Forward at age 20 banishing intelligentsia into the countryside to die, rich owner with many serfs at age 60.  But always true to Chairman Mao, I am certain.   Am I pushing too much on China? Some folks think so.  I think we have placed ourselves in their not-so-tender mercy   …  since we can no longer build things for ourselves, the situation will only grow more aggravated.

Note that this rare earth withdrawal is currently hurting us mostly in the price of CFL bulbs. (The NYT print edition had a typo about this, read the on-line update.)  If extended, we will not be able to build our microcircuits, and this will affect new generations of cell phones, pads, laptops, high efficiency cars, … and so on.  When this shortage hits the consumer market we will see serious withdrawal of services and choices.

click for a list our posts on illumination technology

CFLs are so wonderfully bumper sticker green.  CFL adoption is not a political alignment issue, although reactionary Tea Party crazies are against them out of elbow-jerk reflex.  The utopian argument is FOR — If only everyone did what was best, CFLs would make life beautiful.  Whatever.

CFLs will be only choice in the nation next year, so be happy.  Come 2012, our survival will take the next step in its dependency on the Chinese hegemony.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 Sep 18
This is listed under   Technology     …thread  Technology >  Fluorescents
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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2 Responses to Update — Fluorescent Lights / China

  1. Carlo Luri says:

    Charles – what about accelerating the transition to LEDs? I am sure these are made in China as well but seems like a no-brainer. Apart from the mercury problem resulting from improperly disposed of CFLs I also find that the “life” of CFLs is much shorter than advertised. With the greater efficiency of LED technology we should be investing in the next generation of lighting products.

    C. Luri


    • LastTechAge says:

      I agree, LED’s do look like the technology to replace incandescents. Still really expensive but the prices are dropping, organic LEDs in particular.

      There may be some disposal issues, I have not really looked into it closely. If we were to dump enough in one place, surely semiconductor heavy elements must leach out. Every “industrial” country ought to be investing in this as one of the home-grown industries, or they may not keep their status as “industrial.” Everything about them, efficiency, lifetime, you name it, really make it look like the Next Great Thing. — Charles


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