Running Out of Light

This morning I had an idea. But then I looked up at that cartoon light bulb hovering over my head, and decided to write about that object, instead.

This marvelous still-working antique makes for a better image than the collection of dead light bulbs that were actually my inspiration. You see, the world is running out of tungsten. So I am starting to salvage the filaments from my dead light bulbs.

May I assume that you don’t think about tungsten very often? This metal is rarer and harder to purify than gold. But it sells for only a few dozen dollars a pound. Every electrical light bulb, whether incandescent, fluorescent, or arc, contains tungsten. So do x-ray tubes, cat-scanners, and (believe it or not) commercial airplane wings.

What’s so special about it? It has a high melting point. It is the only element that would be a liquid on the surface of the sun. This is why it is so useful in light bulbs. It is also one of the heaviest elements: As heavy as gold, or eleven times as heavy as magnesium. This density is why it is in the wings of large airplanes, as dynamic turbulence compensators. You can see many examples and learn lots of cool stuff about tungsten here at PeriodicTable.com. I get lost in that site, either geeking out or admiring the photography and stories.

Anyway, this rare and useful material  is getting hard to find in the Earth’s crust. And every day, tons of it go to the landfill, mostly in burned-out lightbulbs. All the original tungsten is still in that sealed ampule, mostly as a strand of wire with a small gap. And we throw this rare stuff away.

Although we are generations away from needing to mine the landfills for valuable materials such as this, I have decided to start collecting tungsten from my dead lamps. At the rate they burn out, I may have a pound by the end of my life. But it feels vaguely satisfying to know that it will be easy to recycle, once they (we) realize its value.

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1 Response to “Running Out of Light”


  1. 1 Dan Klarmann August 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Here is a video I made of saving some tungsten (involves both time lapse and slo-mo): http://youtu.be/zpD4WHHAGZ4


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