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Smart lighting director talks about the Future of Lighting

October 3, 2014

The lighting industry's great success in producing extremely reliable, energy-efficient lighting from light emitting diodes (LEDs) is wreaking havoc on its traditional bulb-and-socket business model. Instead of focusing on selling bulbs, which won't need to be replaced for the life of an installation, companies have started to add value by making fixtures that can sense whether a person is in the room, measure the ambient natural light and adjust the lighting accordingly to save energy and improve vision or set a mood. Some have wi-fi capabilities that allow the light to be programmed with a smart phone or remote.

But lighting is going far beyond that, Dr. Robert Karlicek told a gathering of the Albuquerque branch of the Illumination Engineering Society on Oct. 1.

Lighting will eventually be one component in building management systems that will be able to tell how many people are in a room, whether they are sitting, performing tasks, or walking, whether a person has fallen or if a countertop needs to be disinfected. The color of the lights will adjust to optimize human health and productivity and, "li-fi" will allow for faster downloads of movies and other data than the increasingly bandwidth-constrained wi-fi can accommodate.

Karlicek, who is director of the National Science Foundation-funded Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said that systems controls for lighting will be as complex and interactive as Google’s self-driving cars.

The University of New Mexico's Center for High Technology Materials is a partner in the Smart Lighting ERC. Led by Dr. Steven Brueck, the grant supports the research of UNM professors Lee Brown, Daniel Feezell, Majeed Hayat, Meeko Oishi, and Payman Zarkesh-Ha.

Today's white LEDs are composed of a blue LED coated with a color conversion phosphor that adds in other longer-wavelengths (colors). Combined, the colors mix to white, but the phosphor makes the LED lamp less efficient. Tomorrow's lighting will have multiple, differently colored LEDs, providing higher efficiency and driving a much more flexible and adjustable lighting paradigm. UNM research is involved in developing these additional longer wavelength LEDs and in providing the complex sensors and control systems that will be necessary for controlling the illumination and adjusting it for varying situations.

UNM is also investigating the impact of lighting on living things. Studies have shown, for example, that exposure to blue light in the morning resets the body’s circadian clock. In one study on middle school students, researchers found that for each morning that students wore special goggles that blocked out blue light, their release of melatonin (a hormone that induces sleepiness) started six minutes later in the evening, and the effect was cumulative. Scientists are exploring whether controlling lighting color will help people with sleep disorders, shift workers, who suffer disproportionately from adverse health, and people with head injuries. UNM is planning to retrofit a room in a health care facility with a smart lighting system to study the effect of light color on young adults who exhibit "delayed sleep phase syndrome." Such patients usually fall asleep long after midnight and have trouble waking up in the morning. There is some suggestion that this sleep disorder is genetically associated with adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.