LED smart lighting advances with NSF grant to universities

Rensselaer will host a center dedicated to energy-efficient lighting and photonics, and Boston University will develop wireless communications technology based on visible light.

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Prototype LED tranceiver
A new research center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, funded by a five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, aims to supplant the common light bulb with next-generation lighting devices that are smarter, greener, and ripe for innovation.

Funded by the NSF, industry, New York state, and led by Rensselaer with partners Boston University and the University of New Mexico, The Engineering Research Center for Smart Lighting will investigate and develop LED technologies that will open doors to a diverse spectrum of new applications impacting everything from biotechnology and transportation to computer networking and displays.

The project is expected to receive up to $50 million in funding over the next 10 years. The bulk of this funding will come from the NSF, with additional support from New York state, Rensselaer, and 18 industrial partners. NSF funding began in September with $3.25 million for the center’s first year, a figure forecast to increase over the next several years.

The new research center will concentrate on three primary research thrusts, said Fred Schubert, Wellfleet Senior Constellation Professor of Future Chips at Rensselaer, who leads the center. A multidisciplinary team will focus on developing novel materials, device technology, and systems applications to further the understanding and proliferation of smart lighting technologies.

Twenty faculty researchers from Rensselaer, along with 10 researchers from partners Boston University and the University of New Mexico, will staff the new center. Students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting industry engineers will also be regular contributors to the research conducted at the Smart Lighting ERC.

At the heart of smart lighting are powerful techniques to control the basic properties of light. With recent breakthroughs in the first true anti-reflective coating, nano-emitter growth, in the unprecedented control of the refractive index of materials, and the demonstration of the first viable polarized LED-based light sources, researchers are now better able to control almost every aspect of light.

Boston University’s role

Under this grant, Boston University plans to develop the next generation of wireless communications technology by piggybacking data communications capabilities on low-power LEDs. This would create “Smart Lighting” that would be faster and more secure than current network technology.

“Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires,” said BU Engineering Professor Thomas Little. “This could be done with an LED-based communications network that also provides light – all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference. Ultimately, the system is expected to be applicable from existing illumination devices, like swapping light bulbs for LEDs.”

Boston University researchers will focus on developing computer networking applications, notably the solid state optical technology that will form the network’s backbone. Funding for the BU portion of the program is expected to total about $1 million per year for the next 10 years plus additional funding from industrial partners and possibly the formation of new businesses by entrepreneurs.

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