This special Cluster of articles in Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics covers the subject of mercury-free discharges that are being investigated by different light source researchers, as an alternative to existing mercury-containing lamps. The main driving force to move away from mercury-containing discharge light sources is connected to the environmentally unfriendly nature of mercury. After inhalation or direct contact, severe mercury exposure can lead to damage to human brain cells, the kidneys, the liver and the nervous system. For this reason, the use of mercury in products is becoming more and more restricted by different governmental bodies. In the lighting industry, however, many products still make use of mercury, for different reasons. The main reason is that mercury-containing products are, in most cases, more efficient than mercury-free products. For a realistic comparison of the environmental impact, the mercury-contamination due to electricity production must be taken into account, which depends on the type of fuel being used. For an average European fuel-mix, the amount of mercury that is released into the environment is around 29 µg kWh-1. This means that a typical 30 W TL lamp during a lifetime of 20,000 hours will release a total of about 20 mg mercury due to electricity production, which exceeds the total mercury dose in the lamp (more and more of which is being recycled) by a factor of 5–10 for a modern TL lamp. This illustrates that, quite apart from other environmental arguments like increased CO2 production, mercury-free alternatives that use more energy can in fact be detrimental for the total mercury pollution over the lifetime of the lamp. For this reason, the lighting industry has concentrated on lowering the mercury content in lamps as long as no efficient alternatives exist. Nevertheless, new initiatives for HID lamps and fluorescent lamps with more or less equal efficiency are underway, and a number of them are described in this special issue. These initiatives may in time offer realistic alternatives for mercury-containing discharge lamps as the efficiency gap with existing products is getting smaller. At the same time, new applications for radiation sources are becoming more important, and in some of them the presence of mercury has other disadvantages besides the environmental aspects. Since in most cases mercury is used in the form of a saturated vapour, the mercury pressure is dependent on the ambient temperature, which means that mercury-containing lamps often show a slow increase to the steady-state light output or a strongly reduced output in cold environments, which is undesirable in many applications. For this reason also, different options for light sources without mercury are being investigated, and a number of them can be found in this special issue. This collection of papers gives a good overview of the different technologies that are currently being investigated as alternatives to existing lamp technologies, and will surely inspire others to reduce the use of mercury for lighting applications.