The compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) intended to replace standard incandescents aren’t perfect, but one argument against them – that breakage or improper disposal introduces small amounts of mercury (a neurotoxin) into the environment – may soon become less potent.
If researchers at Brown University have their way, the packaging of CFLs soon will come with a built-in defense against breakage, and the same could be true for the containers used to recycle the bulbs. Researchers led by professor Robert Hurt and engineering student Natalie Johnson have discovered a high-tech material that can absorb almost all the mercury released in a bulb break, and the university has applied for patents involving both CFL packaging and the material itself, which could be sold separately for household cleanup.
As detailed in a paper published in this week’s online edition of Environmental Science & Technology, the discovery came after 28 substances were tested for their ability to absorb mercury. Selenium, an element found in diet supplements, was found to be particularly useful. It “just loves mercury,” Professor Hurt said in a statement, and when used in nanoparticle form can soak up “99 percent of mercury vapor” in a sealed container.
While the material isn’t ready for retail distribution, the team has designed prototypes with real-world use in mind — testing cleanup on carpets and wood floors, and layering the selenium substance in between buffers that would protect users from coming into contact with it after use.
Power-conserving CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than incandescents, according to the U.S. government’s Energy Star program.
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