Rare Earth Elements & Fluorescent Lamps

Rare earth elements have recently become an issue in the media and on the international agenda, after years of relative obscurity.  This group of 17 elements is essential to the production of communication technologies such as smart phones and flat screen TV’s in addition to automotive components, clean energy sources, weapons systems, traditional fuel refineries, and countless other technologies.  The production of fluorescent lamps is included among these technologies.


Up to 97% of the world’s rare earth elements used in the production of these technologies are mined in China and the Chinese government has recently implemented new tariffs and mining regulations on these minerals in an effort to expand their dominance on this market, in what started as a land dispute with Japan.  Japan is the world’s largest importer of these minerals.


Due to these regulations, Chinese exports of rare earth materials were reduced 40% from 2009 to 2010 and another 35% during the first half of 2011 compared with the previous year. These reduced quotas have influenced the price of these compounds to substantially increase – as much as 3500% since January of 2010 in some cases and are increasing the cost to manufacture fluorescent lamps. We all know what that results in at the commercial and retail market levels.


Hopefully over time, the rare earth market will begin to correct itself with the help of new large scale mining operations planned in Canada and Western Australia.  A mine in the Mojave Desert is restarting after a decade long shutdown.  Furthermore, Japan has recently discovered vast deposits of the rare earth phosphors in the seabed of the Pacific Ocean that could challenge China’s dominance, if the mineral’s recovery proves to be viable. However, these potentially increased supplies may take some time before the finished products reach the market.


Thus for the foreseeable future, the shortage of the rare earth phosphors will cause headaches for the manufacturers of fluorescent lamps used in commercial and residential applications.  While the commercial customer may be more likely (and able) to spend the extra money for the fluorescent lamp, it’s the residential consumer that is more likely to feel the “pinch”.   


With production of the 100-watt incandescent lamp to cease at the end of this year and the 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs soon to follow, residential consumers will be looking for replacement lamps in the form of CFL’s or LED’s.  Backlash over the retail price of the CFL’s and LED lamps began long before this crisis began and will only escalate as prices continue to increase.  While the reduced energy consumption and longer useful life of these lamps is an attractive option, the initial cost is currently leaving a very unpleasant taste in the consumer’s mouth and wallet and will only get worse.  Today’s technologies don’t offer many other options, if any.


The advice that I would offer up for both the commercial and residential consumer at this time, is to take full advantage of all available product and utility rebates, tax credits, tax deductions and similar programs that are designed to help off-set the initial cost of purchasing these lamps.  Check out your local utility company website.  Most utility companies now offer commercial and residential energy audit services.  These programs will help you understand and identify potential energy saving measures and offer advice on what types of lamps and other equipment to purchase.  The programs are usually detailed and easily understood.  Also, it is certainly a good idea to do your homework about the lamp wattages available, the colors available and what would best fit your lighting needs. 


Not all light bulbs are created equal!


For example – a 14-watt CFL and a 14-watt LED do NOT produce the same amount of light, and are not even remotely similar in price.  Be prepared for this “sticker shock” when browsing your local hardware and “big box” store aisles.


Retail CFL prices for 14 – 19 watt lamps are in the $3.50 – $4.50 range today.  Sometimes, the prices are a little better if you buy case quantities, such as 6 or more.  These wattages will normally produce the light equivalent of a 60-watt to 75-watt incandescent lamp.  The rated life for these lamps are 10K – 20K hours and can be longer with the use of certain control devices such as occupancy sensors.  Certain CFL’s can be dimmed, but have to be specifically manufactured to do so.  Most do not.  Again, read the packaging if you are looking to install one in a dimmable circuit.


LED prices are all over the place now – and again, you need to understand the wattages.  A 7.5-watt LED lamp is the approximate light equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent lamp.  Retail prices are anywhere from $30.00 – $50.00 each depending on the supplier.  The rated life for these lamps is 50K+ hours in most applications.  Some screw-in LED lamps can be installed in dimmable circuits, but read the specifications carefully.

Isolated LED Light Bulb 2
Modern LED Light Bulb


Furthermore, the physical design of the lamp is important.  You wouldn’t want to screw in a “spot” type lamp in your bedside table light fixture, nor would you want to install a “twister” type lamp in a recessed can type fixture lighting up your expensive art work!  You should know the difference when you are making your purchases.


Philips, Osram-Sylvania and GE are the “big three” when it comes to fluorescent lamps.  However, there are literally dozens of lamp makers and distributors flooding the market today with their versions of the CFL’s and LED’s, but most of these are actually made by one of the major manufacturer’s.


In summary I would suggest that today’s fluorescent lamp market is very volatile with regard to pricing and availability.  However I am optimistic that this will taper off in the near future with the new geological discoveries and foreign policy strategies. 


So if you will pardon the pun, maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel!

Contributed by: Sir Marty Hamilton, Lighting Expert








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