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Lighting the Way
From transportation to health to illuminating our homes and workplaces, lighting technology infuses human activity so thoroughly that its power may be taken for granted. But uncovering the wonders of lighting innovation is the focus of Rensselaer’s acclaimed Lighting Research Center (LRC), which over the last 20 years has built a reputation as the premier academic institution of its kind in the United States.

“I think the potential for lighting to grow as a field has never been as good since the turn of the last century,” says LRC Director Mark Rea. “Both new technologies and new areas of intellectual discovery offer us the opportunity to make significant contributions to society and the environment right now.”

Located in the historic Gurley Building in downtown Troy, LRC researchers are working on a spectrum of projects ranging from alternatives to traditional incandescent or fluorescent bulbs to improving health through better lighting. Researchers also have created innovations to let buildings automatically reduce surplus light and energy use, a vital tool given rising energy costs.

LRC is a research powerhouse with the nation’s only Ph.D. program in lighting and 50 to 60 research projects typically under way. The federal government uses the center to study traffic safety and energy reduction, while the Office of Naval Research, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Boeing have all recently sought LRC’s expertise to understand how people respond to light. Industry also has a hand in the research, with lighting manufacturers relying on the center to objectively evaluate their wares.

What sets LRC apart, according to Rea, is the commitment of putting the research into action—advancing the principle of “social entrepreneurship.” That means applying scientific rigor to lighting and studying it in the day-to-day world, not just in the lab.

“Our purpose is to aid society and the environment,” says LRC co-founder and Associate Director Russell Leslie. “Lighting has been an underachiever,” he says. “The lighting industry has done a terrible job of letting people know what lighting can do.” The work being done at LRC is helping to bring those breakthroughs to light.

The Measure of Success

Lighting research begins with measurement. “This center is built on measuring light and electricity, and everything else is convertible,” says Rea.

In fact, measuring and quantifying light is LRC’s core capability. Most consumers quantify light in the watts of the bulbs they purchase, but for researchers it’s often an intricate puzzle combining technology and physiology to recommend the best type of light.

In fact measurement was the basis for the biggest development in LRC’s growth. In 1990, LRC was established as the testing center for the National Lighting Product Information Program, with initial funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. With this designation, LRC evaluates emerging technologies and can give a valuable seal of approval to new products—or highlight their flaws. Its testing program, headed by Technical Director Conan O’Rourke, has produced more than 50 published reports on lighting innovations.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.