Experimental Sulfur Lamp

New lighting inventions occasionally appear from unexpected directions. The development of this microwave-powered lamp provides a case in point. In 1990 Fusion Systems was a small company with a successful, highly specialized product, an innovative ultraviolet (UV) industrial lighting system powered by microwaves.
Discharge lamps typically use electrodes to support an electric arc. Tungsten electrodes are most common, so materials that might erode tungsten can't be used in the lamp and care must be taken to not melt the electrodes. Fusion's lamp side-stepped this problem by eliminating electrodes entirely. Microwave energy from an external source energized the lamp. This opened the way for experiments with non-traditional materials, including sulfur.
During the 1980s engineer Michael Ury, physicist Charles Wood, and their colleagues experimented several times with adapting their UV system to produce visible light without success. In 1990, they tried placing sulfur in a spherical bulb instead of a linear tube. Sulfur could give a good quality light, but did not work well in the linear tube. Other elements only gave marginal results in the spherical bulb. But when they tested sulfur in the spherical lamp they found what they hoped for: lots of good visible light with little invisible UV or infrared rays.
They began setting up "crude" lamps like this one (one of the first ten according to Ury) in order to learn more about the new light source. In the mid-1990s Fusion began trying to sell their sulfur bulbs with limited success. The lamp rotated at 20,000 rpm so that the temperature stayed even over the surface, and a fan was needed for cooling. The fan and spin motor made noise and reduced energy efficiency of the total system. Then they found that the bulbs lasted longer than the magnetrons used to generate the microwaves that powered them. Finding inexpensive magnetrons proved too difficult, and the company stopped selling the product in 2002.
Lamp characteristics: A quartz stem with notch near the bottom serves as the base. The notch locks the lamp into its fixture. The sphere has an argon gas filling, and the yellow material is sulfur condensed on the inner lamp wall. The pattern of condensation indicates lamp was burned base-down. Tipless, G-shaped quartz envelope.
Object Name
microwave lamp
discharge lamp
Date made
ca 1990
date made
ca. 1990
Ury, Michael G.
Physical Description
glass (overall material)
sulfur (overall material)
argon (overall material)
overall: 7 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in; 19.685 cm x 3.175 cm
Place Made
United States: Maryland, Rockville
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Electricity
Industry & Manufacturing
Energy & Power
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center


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