RPI researchers describe LEDs as a catalyst for unexpected technological advances

LEDs have the potential to revolutionize how we use light by enabling controllable, tunable, intelligent, and communicative lighting sources, a recent paper states.

Innovations in photonics and solid state lighting will lead to trillions of dollars in cost savings, along with a massive reduction in the amount of energy required to light homes and businesses, two professors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have forecast in a recent article. However, there are other benefits to these innovations.

The paper, "Transcending the replacement paradigm of solid-state lighting," published in the Dec. 22, 2008, issue of Optics Express, suggests that, in addition to the environmental and cost benefits of LEDs, the technology is expected to enable a wide range of advances in areas as diverse as health care, transportation systems, digital displays, and computer networking.

“What the transistor meant to the development of electronics, the LED means to the field of photonics. This core device has the potential to revolutionize how we use light,” wrote co-authors E. Fred Schubert, who heads the university’s NSF-funded Smart Lighting Center, and Jong Kyu Kim, a research assistant professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering.

With all of the promise and potential of LEDs, Schubert and Kim said it is important not to pigeonhole or dismiss smart lighting technology as a mere replacement for conventional light bulbs. The paper is a call to arms for scientists and engineers, and stresses that advances in photonics will position solid state lighting as a catalyst for unexpected, currently unimaginable technological advances.

“Deployed on a large scale, LEDs have the potential to tremendously reduce pollution, save energy, save financial resources, and add new and unprecedented functionalities to photonic devices. These factors make photonics what could be termed a benevolent tsunami, an irresistible wave, a solution to many global challenges currently faced by humanity and will be facing even more in the years to come,” the researchers wrote. “Transcending the replacement paradigm will open up a new chapter in photonics: Smart lighting sources that are controllable, tunable, intelligent, and communicative.”

Possible smart lighting applications include rapid biological cell identification, interactive roadways, boosting plant growth, and better supporting human circadian rhythms to reduce an individual’s dependency on sleep-inducing drugs or reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

In the paper, Schubert and Kim said that in general, LEDs will require 20 times less power than today’s conventional light bulbs, and five times less power than “green” compact fluorescent bulbs.

If all of the world’s light bulbs were replaced with LEDs for a period of 10 years, the professors estimate the following benefits would be realized:

  • Total energy consumption would be reduced by 1,929.84 joules.
  • Electrical energy consumption would be reduced by terawatt hours.
  • Financial savings of $1.83 trillion.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 10.68 gigatons.
  • Crude oil consumption would be reduced by 962 million barrels.
  • The number of required global power plants would be reduced by 280.
In October, Rensselaer announced its new Smart Lighting Research Center, in partnership with Boston University and the University of New Mexico, and funded by an $18.5 million, five-year award from the NSF Generation Three Engineering Research Center Program. The three primary research thrusts of the center are developing novel materials, device technology, and systems applications to further the understanding and proliferation of smart lighting technologies.

To read the full paper, visit: the Optics Express web site.

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