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* Smart Lighting

Rensselaer’s Future Chips Constellation includes world-class photonics pioneers dedicated to advancing communications, lighting, sensing, and imaging.

By Sheila Nason     Printer-friendly PDF version

Candlelight flickering on a dinner table. Fluorescent lights emitting a bright glare over a factory floor. Colorful LEDs presenting an animated display on a baseball scoreboard. Since the first caveman learned to control fire, humans have shaped and used light in a constantly expanding array of technologies. Yet lighting – “smart lighting” – could do much more, according to E. Fred Schubert, Wellfleet Senior Distinguished Professor of the Future Chips Constellation at Rensselaer.

As one example, Schubert predicts that revolutionary lighting systems will provide an entirely new means of sensing and broadcasting information. By blinking far too rapidly for any human to notice, the light will pick up data from sensors and carry it from room to room, reporting such information as the location of every person within a high-security building.

New photonic crystal light emitters will be 10 to 30 times more efficient than light bulbs, says Shawn-Yu Lin, Future Chips Constellation Professor and professor of physics. They will have a huge impact on worldwide energy consumption and the environment. It will be possible to change their color and their intensity independently, so that a homeowner can easily adjust both to match the time of day, the current use of the area, or the mood of the occupants.

Christian Wetzel, the Wellfleet Career Development Constellation Professor, Future Chips, and associate professor of physics, envisions an inexpensive spectroscopy lab the size of a laptop computer – or even a ballpoint pen. A person with a serious allergy to shell food or peanuts could carry the device and test food for herself to be sure of its safety. “The computers exist. The limiting factor is the light source, and we’re the ones working on that,” he says. “The computers are already very smart. They are waiting on us to provide the data.”

Schubert, Lin, and Wetzel – all recognized photonics pioneers – have come together at Rensselaer to form the nucleus of the Future Chips Constellation, a multidisciplinary group that is conducting leading-edge research in compound semiconductor materials and devices with the goal of enabling significant advances in communications, lighting, sensing, and imaging.

At Rensselaer, a constellation is a multidisciplinary team of senior faculty, junior faculty, and graduate students led by outstanding stars in a strategic research field. The Future Chips Constellation, which is expected to grow, also includes Thomas Gessmann, a research assistant professor; James Bur, a senior research scientist; Jong Kyu Kim and Ibrahim Yilmaz, two postdoctoral researchers; a number of doctoral students, and three undergraduate students.

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In addition, such major Rensselaer research centers as the Center for Advanced Interconnect Systems Technologies, the Interconnect Focus Center-New York, the Rensselaer/IBM Center for Broadband Data Transfer Science and Technology, the NSF Nanotechnology Science and Engineering Research Center, and the Lighting Research Center provide a broad range of expertise, potential collaborations, and facilities.

A major focus of the Future Chips Constellation is smart lighting, a revolutionary new field in photonics based on efficient light sources that are fully tunable in terms of such factors as spectral content, emission pattern, polarization, color temperature, and intensity.

Schubert, who leads the group, says smart lighting will not only offer better, more efficient illumination; it will provide “totally new functionalities.” He offers additional examples:

  • Studies have shown that spectral (color) variations in light have profound effects on the human circadian and visual systems (See related article from Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center). Controlling the amount of red, yellow, and blue in white light has implications for sleep in Alzheimer’s patients, growth of premature infants, seasonal depression, jet lag, and the well being of nightshift workers. Some researchers have suggested that inappropriate lighting can upset the body chemistry and even lead to certain types of cancer.

  • In live-cell biological imaging, smart lighting could make it possible to coordinate intensity, wavelength, and polarization with image scanning to reveal a new wealth of features. Using this revolutionary cellular microscopy technique, for example, researchers could observe and analyze multiple single cells in real time as they react to a drug or infectious agent.

  • Studies show that central and peripheral vision react to different color spectrums. Automobile headlamps with dispersive characteristics perfectly adapted to human vision characteristics could provide enhanced visibility and safety for nighttime driving.

  • Smart lighting could address the world’s pressing need for increased food production because light plays a pivotal role in plant growth and photosynthesis. Adjustable smart light sources predominately made up of blue, red, and infrared wavelengths, the portions of the spectrum best absorbed by plants, could provide a low-cost, energy-efficient way to grow crops off-season.

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