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Vu1 Light Bulbs Go Beyond CFLs and LEDs

Upstart boasts "Electron Stimulated Luminescence" (ESL), a new lighting technology. Also see more energy saving light bulbs, and check out the recent book Green Lighting.


vu1 light bulb, r30 esl (electron stimulated luminescence)

When I was researching the Green Lighting book with my coauthors Seth Leitman and Bill Brinsky, we heard about a whole new lighting technology that was reportedly in development. Details were scarce, and repeated calls and emails to the Seattle-based Vu1 Corporation were never returned. So we were only able to write a few paragraphs, based on press releases.

Now, however, Vu1 is providing a lot more information. The other day, William B. Smith dropped by The Daily Green's office to tell us about the product. Smith is president of New York-based SAM Advisors, which has been funding Vu1 and controls two seats on its board. He was also just named the new chairman of Vu1. Smith admitted that the company had been going through a reorganizing period while we were working on our book.

Smith's message was clear: he hopes Vu1 bulbs will become the dominant lighting technology in the next couple of years. He pulled no punches when describing the competition. "CFLs are garbage," Smith said. He described their light as "horrible" and "bluish," and repeated widespread concerns over the toxic mercury they contain (I've written before about how many of these fears are way overblown, and are not a good reason to avoid CFLs in most cases.)

"On the high end, you have LEDs (light emitting diodes), which still have power issues, light issues, and are expensive, although our government has gotten behind them," said Smith. "The LED industry doesn't have a good product now. They say they do, but they don't. It will be four to five years before they have something people will want in their homes," he said.

(In Green Lighting, we disagree with Smith, and feel that the newest LEDs can be a great choice for many applications right now. Certainly for early adopters and those interested in saving money long term, they can be a smart buy. For the rest of us, we think they will become the dominant technology within two to three years, not four to five. Check out TDG's recent lighting tests, and see for yourself how today's LEDs provide excellent light quality compared to CFLs and traditional incandescents.)

Vu1 bulbs work through a twist of an existing technology, namely the cathode ray tube technology that was widely used for television sets and computer monitors until the past few years. Inside a Vu1 bulb, electrons are emitted, and they light up a coating of phosphors, which glows and produces light. The company calls this Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) technology.

The first Vu1 bulb available is an R30 reflector bulb (for recessed "cans"). It produces 600 lumens, uses 19.5 watts, is dimmable, lights up instantly, has a power factor of 0.99 (meaning it has little impact on the grid) and is supposed to replace R30 65-watt incandescents. Unlike an LED, it does not produce heat at the back of the bulb, although it does produce some in the front.

According to Smith, the bulbs contain no mercury or other hazardous materials, and can simply be thrown out in the regular trash when spent. The bulbs are expected to last 10,000 hours, or roughly the same as a good fluorescent (but less than good LEDs, which are estimated to last up to 50,000 hours). Perhaps the best thing about the technology, according to Smith, is that it produces very warm, somewhat yellowish light. "This is the light we are all used to, and what people want," Smith said. According to a previous press release, the R30 prototype had a color temperature of 2,800K, and the color rendering index (CRI) is said to be 85. That's about the same as a good CFL or LED, but still less than incandescents, which approach 100.

The R30 Vu1 initially costs $20, and the company is currently taking pre-orders on its website. (Smith said he expects prices to drop significantly in the future, "as we bend that price curve.") Manufacturing is being done in the Czech Republic.

According to Smith, the company will soon be releasing four-foot linear bulbs and standard A-shape bulbs. "We're going to be able to use different colors by changing the phosphors," he adds. Vu1's ESL technology has been nominated for the 2011 Edison Best New Product Award, and finalists will be announced in February.

A potential competitor to the Vu1 is the Philips EnduraLED line, which includes PAR30 flood lights, MR16 track-style models, and an A19 "standard bulb" shape. The EnduraLED's yellow plastic housing gives the light a warm, yellowish tint (2,700K color temperature), which is quite close to both an incandescent and the Vu1. The EnduraLED A19 exhibits smooth dimming, has a CRI of 80, uses 12W and lasts for 25,000 hours. A current drawback is that it costs around $40, twice as much as the Vu1.

So what's the bottom line? We think it's great that more efficient lighting options are becoming available. There's already been considerable resistance to adopting CFLs in America (not so much overseas), and some aren't yet ready for LEDs for a number of reasons, including familiarity and light tone. If a Vu1 works for you, great. It's certainly better than an incandescent.

Here's a handy chart I put together to compare the technologies:

Spec: Vu1 R30 ESL Phillips EnduraLED A19 12W EcoSmart Standard Socket LED ArmorLite Safety CFL GE Doublelife Incandescent
Type: Reflector Standard 3 Standard Standard Standard
Watts: 19.5 12 8.6 14 40
Lumens: 600 (31 l/W) 800 (67 1/W) 429 (50 l/W) 800 (57 l/W) row 455 (11 l/W)
CRI: 85 80 85 NA 100
Power Factor: 0.99 NA, 0.6 for 7W 0.98-0.99* NA, 0.5 estimate 1
Color temperature: 2,800 K (warm) 2,700 K (warm) 3,032 K (bright) 4,100 K (daylight) 2,700 K (warm)
Lifespan: 10,000 hours 25,000 hours 50,000 hours 10,000 hours 2,000 hours
Warranty: NA 3 years 5 years 2 years NA
Dimmable: Y Y Y N Y
Cost: $20 $40 $18 $11.50 $1

*(According to tester)

Check out this Vu1-produced video on the ESL technology:

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Brian Clark Howard

Brian Clark Howard

Brian Clark Howard is The Daily Green's home and tips editor.
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Green Lighting: How Energy-Efficient Lighting Can Save You Energy and Money and Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.
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