A new dawn for lighting
It’s about to be ‘more personalized’
It was about a million years ago, many experts believe, in what is now South Africa, when humans learned to control light and drive out darkness by mastering fire. Fire’s role as a light source was unchanged for a very long time, until Thomas Edison perfected artificial light in 1879 with the first commercially successful electric light bulb.
His incandescent bulbs still dominated 110 years later when, in 1987, an architecture professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute established a research centre to study light; the centre has since grown to be the largest of its type in the world.
Now, the Lighting Research Centre is at the forefront of new technologies that could make artificial light in the near future less expensive, more efficient, and more personalized and precise — with applications ranging from encouraging sleep in nursing homes to stimulating milk production in dairy cows.
Twenty-five years later, founder Russell Leslie is associate director of the centre, which still offers the world’s only master’s degree in lighting.
And Leslie has a message: Get ready to replace those old, wasteful incandescent bulbs, and even the squiggly, energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs that were the next step.
Over the next few years they will be replaced by the next generation of artificial lights — light-emitting diodes, or LEDs — that will provide light that costs less and can do more. The LEDs will lull you to sleep in your room, alleviate jet lag, or even help sailors on submarines better tolerate long stretches without sunlight.
“Light is about to become much more personalized,” Leslie said. “We are going to be able to apply light with a lot more precision.”
Unlike incandescent bulbs, LEDs can reproduce the colour spectrum, and that spectrum can be manipulated toward certain ends, such as helping to replicate the human sleep cycle. “You will be able to integrate that kind of light with the room that you are in.”
U.S. government support launched the research centre. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority awarded the LRC its initial funding of $3.5 million, and since then has given it a total of $14 million.
Also still with the research centre is the researcher that Leslie originally hired to run it, Mark Rea, whose expertise is in biophysics. His research has focused on light’s role in physical responses in the body, like circadian rhythms, and how human vision performs in low light just above darkness, which contributes to improved street and outdoor lighting as well as aviation lighting.
Controlled LED lighting could be used in a range of applications from senior citizens whose sleep is fitful, schoolchildren facing a big test in the morning, and even dairy cows’ milk production, Rea said.
Seniors can have problems falling and staying asleep, and controlling light can strengthen sleep patterns, which in turn can reduce symptoms of disorientation, agitation and depression, he said. “These benefits can all reduce the burdens on caregivers.”
Take such control of light into a barn, and research has shown that using LEDs to manipulate the light/dark cycle can increase milk production of cows by up to 15 per cent, Rea said.
“This technology is here, and you are going to start seeing it commercially in the next few years.”