World and Nation

Energy Dept. Offers $10 Million Prize for Better Bulb

The ubiquitous but highly inefficient 60-watt light bulb badly needs a makeover. And it could be worth millions in government prize money — and more in government contracts — to the first company that figures out how to do it.

Right now, that company could be Philips, the Dutch electronics giant. The company announced on Thursday that it had submitted the first entry for the L Prize, a Department of Energy contest that will award up to $10 million to the first person or group to create a new energy-sipping version of the most popular type of light bulb used in America.

As the first entrant, Philips will win the prize if its claims hold up. Testing of the Philips lamp will take close to a year to complete as the department independently evaluates the company’s claims.

“Philips is confident that the product submitted meets or exceeds all of the criteria for the L Prize,” Rudy Provoost, chief of Philips Lighting, said in a statement.

The $10 million is almost beside the point: The contest winner will more importantly receive consideration for potentially lucrative federal purchasing agreements, not to mention a head start at cracking a vast consumer marketplace.

The L Prize has garnered significant attention in the lighting industry because 60-watt incandescent lamps represent 50 percent of all the lighting in the United States, with 425 million sold each year. The Energy Department says that if all those lamps were LED equivalents, enough power would be saved to light 17.4 million American households and cut annual carbon emissions by 5.6 million metric tons annually.

For decades, incandescent light bulbs continued to bear a strong resemblance to Thomas Edison’s creations, but new energy standards that go into effect in 2012 — and would outlaw today’s incandescent bulb — have brought about a period of fertile innovation in the lighting industry. One of the first attempts at greater efficiency was the now-maligned compact fluorescent bulb, but there have also been efforts to modify incandescent technology to conform to the new standard. LED bulbs are already available in stores, but those models have limited output and high prices. A faithful reproduction of an incandescent bulb’s light from an inexpensive and efficient source has been the industry’s ultimate goal.

Philips has delivered 2,000 prototypes of its bulb to the Energy Department for testing. The company says the bulbs meet all the criteria of the contest, which specifies a bulb that reproduces the same amount and color of light made by a 60-watt incandescent bulb, but uses only 10 watts of power. The bulb must also last for more than 25,000 hours — about 25 times longer than a standard light bulb. In a nod to economic concerns, at least 75 percent of the bulb must be made or assembled in the United States.

If the new bulb passes the department’s testing regimen, it will be an even more efficient, longer-lasting lighting device than today’s compact fluorescent bulbs.