By Beth Daley. Globe Staff
It can be a wrenching decision for those trying to live the good green life: Should you install a compact flourescent light knowing that if broken, they pose a small risk of mercury poisoning to infants, young children and pregnant women?
I wrote about the issue at
But now, Brown University researchers may have come up with a way to allow you to have the spiral lights - and capture virtually all the mercury vapor if they happen to break. Engineering professor Robert Hurt and fellow researchers discovered a nanomaterial that operates like a sponge to absorb mercury from a broken CFL.
The material "just loves mercury," said Hurt, director of Brown's Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation. The researchers, who have applied for patents, hope to see the cloth packed in with the lights when they are sold. That way, they can absorb mercury if the fragile lights break in the packaging - or be placed over an area where a bulb has broken.
The researchers found that a form of selenium, a trace element used in diet supplements, absorbs 99 percent of the mercury emitted from a broken CFL. The findings appeared last month in the online edition of Environmental Science & Technology.
Once, CFLs were considered a win-win for global warming.
While more expensive than incandescent light bulbs, the fluorescent lights could last ten times as long and used significantly less energy.
This electron microscope image shows how cloth fibers are laced with selenium to capture mercury.
Sales reached nearly 300 million last year and experts predict the number will continue to grow by 2012 when a federal law goes into effect requiring energy efficient lights.
But in February, the state of Maine and the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project each released a report saying that mercury from broken CFLs could harm infants and pregnant women.
While they urged homeowners to keep using the lights, not everyone in the public agreed.
Brown researchers want to pair up with businesses to manufacture the cloths. The university scientists have also created a specially designed lining for plastic bags that soaks up the mercury left over from CFL shards that are thrown away.
"It's a complete management system to deal with a bulb broken in the home,'' said Hurt.
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