The World’s Smallest Lightbulb

The World’s Smallest Lightbulb (photo: Regan Group, UCLA)
The World’s Smallest Lightbulb (photo: Regan Group, UCLA)

As LED lights and fluorescent bulbs become increasingly mainstream, scientists at UCLA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy have developed a groundbreaking new variation of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb. But don’t expect to find this bulb in your local hardware store anytime soon – unless you normally bring an electron microscope along to do your shopping.

A single carbon nanotube forms the filament of the bulb, and at just 100 atoms wide, it’s invisible to the naked eye. The UCLA team, led by professor Chris Regan, utilized electron microscopes at the university’s California NanoSystems Institute to create the tiny bulb. But despite the filament’s tiny dimensions (just one one-hundred-trillionth the size of Edison’s invention, which interestingly used a carbon filament too), the bulb produces a pinpoint of light that is clearly visible to the unaided eye when illuminated.

So, other than representing some pretty impressive micro-engineering, what’s helpful about a carbon nanolight? To put it simply, the experiment could provide valuable insight to help understand everything from new energy-efficient lighting technologies, to the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. Because the carbon nanotube essentially functions like a large-scale device on a tiny atomic scale, it showcases both thermodynamics and quantum physics at work.

Last week’s UCLA press release describes this in a bit more detail:

“Thermodynamics, the crown jewel of 19th-century physics, concerns systems with many particles. Quantum mechanics, developed in the 20th century, works best when applied to just a few. The UCLA team is using their tiny lamp to study physicist Max Planck’s black-body radiation law, which was derived in 1900 using principles now understood to be native to both theories. Planck’s law describes radiation from large, hot objects, such as a toaster, the Sun or a light bulb. Some such radiation is of fundamental and current scientific interest; the thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang, for instance, which is called the cosmic microwave background, is described by Planck’s law.”

A product with the potential to clarify the Big Bang theory and provide keychain flashlights small enough to make an LED blush? Now that’s the kind of science anyone can get on board with.

(via UCLA press release)

4 thoughts on “The World’s Smallest Lightbulb”

  1. With new scientific discoveries I would even expect a high effeicency incandescent bulb on the market over the next few years that may make CFL and LED bulbs old technology. The new HEI’s would provide people with light they are accustom too with high energy savings and new mercuty pollution worries

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