CINCINNATI - The light bulb is the universal symbol for big ideas, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the concept two University of Cincinnati researchers are cooking up: Turn off the lights and put the sun on reverb.
Anton Harfmann and Jason Heikenfeld recently presented a research paper on the technology they call “SmartLight” at Italy’s CasaClima energy forum. Now, they’re trying to raise money to further develop the concept and perhaps even build a company around the idea.
They say their innovations in the field of electrofluidics could be used to store and distribute sunlight, affordably illuminating the darkest corners of commercial buildings.
"The SmartLight technology would be groundbreaking. It would be game changing," said Harfmann, an associate professor in UC's School of Architecture and Interior Design, in a UC press release. “It would change the way buildings are designed and renovated. It would change the way we would use energy and deal with the reality of the sun. It has all sorts of benefits and implications that I don't think we've even begun to touch."
A Chicago-based real estate executive who advises Procter & Gamble Co. on how to reduce energy consumption in its office buildings and factories sees “huge” potential for SmartLight.
“If they could produce that at the right price point, it would take off,” said Dan Probst, chairman of energy and sustainability services for Jones Lang LaSalle, which has managed P&G real estate assets since 2003.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that lighting consumes 21 percent of the electricity used in commercial buildings. Probst said advances in LED lighting, which generate less heat and consume less electricity, are rapidly gaining in popularity. So, he’s pretty sure a system that makes efficient use of sunlight would find a ready audience.
“When we talk to people about new technology advancements and energy saving technology, the whole category of lighting is the category that’s made the most advancement in the last 5 to 10 years,” Probst said. “There is interest in anything that reduces cost and improves the space.”
Harfmann has been working for several years on SmartLight with Jason Heikenfeld, professor of electrical engineering and computer systems at UC. Heikenfeld named on several patent applications involving the use of electrofluidic cells to control and manipulate light.
“If you look at how we do lighting today, it’s pretty dumb,” Heikenfeld said, “because it’s not really adaptive. You might have two dimmer switches when you walk into a room and that allows you to adjust two sets of lights in the ceiling. But it doesn’t adapt to where you’re tasking or where you work in the room or adjust for sunlight coming in.”
A SmartLight system could do all of that with lighting panels that cost between $30 and $50 per square foot to install.
The UC press release describes how it works:
A narrow grid of electrofluidic cells which is self-powered by embedded photovoltaics is applied near the top of a window. Each tiny cell – only a few millimeters wide – contains fluid with optical properties as good or better than glass. The surface tension of the fluid can be rapidly manipulated into shapes such as lenses or prisms through minimal electrical stimulation – about 10,000 to 100,000 times less power than what's needed to light a traditional incandescent bulb. In this way, sunlight passing through the cell can be controlled.
The grid might direct some light to reflect off the ceiling to provide ambient room lighting. Other light might get focused toward special fixtures for task lighting. Yet another portion of light might be transmitted across the empty, uppermost spaces in a room to an existing or newly installed transom window fitted with its own electrofluidic grid. From there, the process could be repeated to enable sunlight to reach the deepest, most "light-locked" areas of any building.
One big advantage of SmartLight is that the system could be installed without new wiring, cables and duct work. Wireless controls would allow office workers to adjust the brightness in any part of the office. Even better, a smart phone app could be used to follow workers from one part of the office to another. Change desks? The lighting dims where you were, brightens where you are.
“We’re hoping it’ll attract some interest and hopefully some investment,” said Heikenfeld. “This is a shotgun approach to find the folks who are funding agencies or even in the venture capital community that would want to take a shot at this.”
It won’t be an overnight process.
At this point, Heikenfeld is more interested in government grants that would allow him to refine the technology without giving up ownership and control. But he could envision licensing the technology to a company that wants to deploy it globally or building his own company in the next five years.
“Let me put it this way: If it makes sense that we can build a company particularly here in southwest Ohio to do this and create jobs, that
is our hope,” he said. “We don’t yet understand enough to know whether or not that’s feasible. If we can license this technology and the royalties come back to the university, that’s great. But if we could create more jobs through some sort of startup entity, then we would take that step.”