Discovery lights up world of fluorescent tubing


Barna Szabados thought it was inevitable his name would be added to a long list of engineers who had failed to solve one of science's most baffling problems.

Szabados had spent four years trying to discover a method of dimming fluorescent light bulbs – a simple-sounding problem that had dumbfounded everyone who had tackled it.

Close to 60 trials had resulted in little more than a spree of laboratory fires and disappointments for Szabados, an electrical & computer engineering professor at McMaster and director of the Power Research Laboratory. He and his trio of associates could no longer afford to invest their own savings in the pursuit.

Then, after another in a string of sleepless nights, on Nov. 17, 1998 (he still remembers the exact date), he took one last figurative stab in the dark. He saw the light.

“We considered walking away quite often,” he remembers. “We spent close to a million dollars to get that (project) going. We were running out of funds. We kept asking ourselves 'Can we really keep pitching in the funds without getting a solution?'”

Traditional incandescent light bulbs can be dimmed simply by reducing the heat to the filament. But fluorescent light bulbs are much different. When the filament heats up, electrons are released into the tube and collide with atoms to produce light. When the voltage is decreased, an insufficient number of electrons are released to create light.

A solution to that problem had stumped everyone for 40 years. In the past, scientists tried to modify the current once it was inside the bulb in order to change the output. A strobe-light effect was the closest anyone came.

Szabados reversed the process. His solution involves modifying the current's size and shape before it enters the tube. The process also eliminates the annoying buzzing noises and flickering of the tubes.

“It took us from November until June to have that success under control,” he admits. “We were using normal hot plates all along. We had them heating up, but, if we didn't have a breakthrough to cool them, we didn't have a product.

“It was nice to have a process that worked, but the discovery doesn't always lead to a product. We had to work almost as hard to put into effect our discovery.”

In Toronto alone, there are almost 10-million fluorescent fixtures in use. According to Szabados estimates, if 50 per cent of those lights were dimmed, enough power would be saved to close two coal-fired generating plants.

Last summer, the group wired a downtown Toronto office building with the new technology. They hoped to save the company 50 per cent on its energy bill based on their lab estimates. Instead, that figure jumped to 78 per cent.

It seems like an environment and economic windfall. But the blunders of past “breakthroughs” hindered Szabados' group. After obtaining a patent, they couldn't find investors willing to overlook the near-misses and broken promises of past groups.

That is until a story aired on the Discovery Channel's flagship news program, @, on Feb. 3. Producers had documented the experiment for over two years prior to the invention. The piece also mentioned the group's difficulties in marketing their find.

“Now we have problems pushing them away,” says Szabados, who proudly tells stories of alumni offering to sell shares in the product to all past graduates and of students suggesting the money could go a long way toward alleviating the student body's financial burdens.

Just weeks ago, potential investors thought they could “bully around” the group into selling their invention. With three firm offers on the table and others expected, Szabados admits giving investors a dose of their own medicine.

“Now, with publicity, we can out muscle them,” he says. “I was telling my wife 'It really is amazing the power of publicity.'”

He really has seen the light.