Lighting the Way

New research center will change the way we see - and use - light

herseeIn the early 1800s, Englishman humphry Davy invented the world's first electric lamp, the precursor to the light bulb. Many scientists and inventors refined the design in the ensuing decades, but it wasn't until 1879 when Thomas Edison engineered an oxygen-free bulb with a long-burning filament, that the incandescent light bulb really began to shine.

As years passed, the light bulb's efficiency and longevity improved, but its basic purpose - producing light - remained essentially the same. Now that's changing and UNM SOE is part of a revolution in light. Researchers are adding more capabilities to light, making it more energy-efficient, and using it to communicate. In short, UNM researchers are making light smart.

The UNM SOE is proud to be a key member of the new National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC), announced last October. An ERC is a prestigious, interdisciplinary center that brings academia and industry together to foster broad-based research and education collaborations that advance technology, increase knowledge, and create innovations that address challenges in society. Fifteen ERCs around the nation not only generate new technology, but also create new workforce opportunities, enhance education for future generations, and spur more competitive American industries.

"Our participation in this center offers a chance for our engineering students and faculty to create energy-saving technologies that will improve our society and create new business opportunities. We are particularly excited that this program will also have a strong focus on outreach, and we anticipate that the new field of Smart Lighting will increase the number and diversity of students entering science, math and engineering education," says UNM President David J. Schmidly.

The ten-year ERC program is a collaboration among three core institutions-Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the lead university; Boston University; and UNM-and several support organizations. Collaborative research tasks will be performed with faculty and students at Howard University, Morgan-State University, and Rose-Hulman University. Three international universities have been invited to support the ERC's research and education goals: Chonbuk National University in Korea, National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan, and Vilnius University in Lithuania. The ERC includes large and small industry partners, national associations, and small business incubators that will contribute oversight, assist with strategic development, and offer entrepreneurial opportunities for students.

The UNM ERC Team

The entire Smart Lighting ERC was granted $15 million for the first five years of this ten-year project. UNM will receive up to $5 million over the next five years. Stephen Hersee, professor of electrical and computer engineering, is the ERC associate director at UNM and also leads the ERC Materials Research Thrust. Several other UNM researchers will provide expertise in nanotechnology, materials, and devices to the team. Hersee notes that the ERC is still looking for more partners to share their research expertise.

Stephen Brueck, CHTM Director, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and professor of physics and astronomy, will lend his expertise in patterning at the nanoscale. Brueck can put billions of elements into a minute pattern, which other ERC team members will use to build innovative, light-producing devices.

The UNM ERC team also includes Marek Osinski, Gardner-Zemke professor of electrical and computer engineering, professor of computer science, and professor of physics and astronomy. Osinski will contribute his research on nanoparticle phosphors, a synthetic material that lights up when exposed to ultraviolet light. The phosphors can be combined with other devices to create new possibilities for generating light.

"Nanotechnology offers unprecedented opportunities for tailoring material properties to desirable characteristics," says Osinski. As an example, he says that nanophosphors can be optically modulated at much higher speeds than traditional phosphors. Osinski adds that nanoparticles also will be used to create novel high refractive index materials.

For his part, Hersee will contribute his research into a new form of solid-state lighting using gallium nitride (GaN) nanowire LEDs (light emitting diodes). He focuses on GaN because of its many positive properties: it gives off visible light; has a strong, stable construction; and, in nanowire form, the crystals have no defects that would otherwise have negative effects on devices. He uses a new process being patented by UNM to fabricate the nanowires, each just microns tall. Billions of these nanowires will be grouped and used as minute platforms for building novel lighting devices.

Hersee was the first to produce GaN nanowires with a high degree of uniformity, which is critical to the success of devices that will use them. Previous attempts at nanowire production resulted in what Hersee calls "nano noodles," bent wires of different lengths. "You need uniformity and high quality to be able to cost effectively fabricate many devices in parallel," he says.

Light Gets Smart

The progression from incandescent light bulbs to more efficient compact fluorescent lamps is already taking place. Hersee says that even more efficient smart lighting will replace compact fluorescent lamps in the 2010 to 2020 timeframe. He notes that people are quite reluctant to change to the more efficient, compact fluorescent lamps because they produce a much harsher, "colder" light spectrum. "We have to be very aware of human factors when we are dealing with something as important as lighting," he says. Smart lights will address the spectrum issue by providing a more natural color. In fact, with a smart light users will be able choose whatever color suits them best.

Developing high quality materials that will emit energy efficient light is just the beginning. The ERC's research will produce "smart" lights, devices that not only generate light but emit it at wavelengths which can be modulated to transmit the Internet, play music, and much more. "We've never had anything like this before," says Hersee. "We're replacing something that exists with something that has many more benefits and uses."

A wide range of industries from health care and defense to technology and transportation will use smart lights to make our lives better, easier, safer—and brighter. Applications of the technology include energy efficient lights with a natural spectrum that can exactly mimic the sun; traffic lights that "talk" with car headlamps to improve safety and smooth traffic flow; and overhead lights that can transmit data to digital devices like MP3 players and computers.

Launched late last year, the ERC is still in the planning and organization phases. Members are starting with the big picture to determine what to develop - and how. "We begin at a systems level and then define the technical gaps that we need to fill," explains Hersee. "For example, we start with the question of wanting cars to talk to each other and then we figure out how best to do that."

Several research efforts are already well underway. One of the earliest products to feature smart lighting is a solid-state biological imaging microscope that will automate the analysis of biological samples and tests for preventative healthcare. The microscope will be improved in phases, eventually leading to a radically new microscope that will be no bigger than a dime and will feature Hersee's GaN nanowires as the light source. The GaN light will replace the current mercury light-sources that emit inadequate light, which often destroys the biological cell samples being examined. UNM has applied for a patent on the microscope and expects a prototype device in about five years. The ERC's goal will be to use smart lighting and new microscopy paradigms to speed analysis and save health care dollars.

Beyond Research

New technology will be one outcome of the research center. Greater human potential is another. "The scope of the ERC includes a lot more than creating technology," says Hersee. "Part of our responsibility is conducting outreach to create the budding engineers that will go on to the universities and hopefully choose this area as one of their options."

The ERC's educational outreach will start with researchers taking the technology into middle and high school classrooms because the science is so new it's not in textbooks. The UNM team plans to work with the Albuquerque Public School system and teachers around New Mexico to add smart lighting science to the curriculum with the goal of shining a light - literally - on the many career opportunities in science and engineering. The outreach process will also help secure the future of the technology, notes Hersee. "If smart lighting develops like we think it will, we're going to need a lot of engineers. We want to make sure that America is graduating enough engineers to sustain this technology."

ERC outreach efforts will extend to New Mexico's universities and their diverse enrollments. "Nationwide there is a focus on improving diversity in engineering," says Hersee. "So our outreach is dual purpose. We want to generate more engineers, but we need to work especially hard to attract more women, people of color, and other minority students into engineering. Science and engineering will not only benefit by tapping the new intellectual potential that more diversity will bring. But with something so fundamental and ubiquitous as lighting, that touches all of society, we need to have all of our society represented in this revolution in lighting."

Part of the ERC program will be devoted to understanding and promoting the innovative spirit. Graduate and undergraduate students will have the opportunity to take classes on intellectual property development and the technology transfers process. These courses will be coordinated through STC.UNM and intellectual property and business incubation organizations at each of the core partner institutions. Students will collaborate with the ERC's industry partners through internships. Engineers from industry will spend time at the various ERC academic sites. In some cases, the students will become entrepreneurs themselves, taking the technology they helped develop into industry.

Amazing technologies, stronger industries, diverse generations of new engineers - the Smart Lighting ERC is full of potential to create a brighter, smarter future for the world.