Centralized Lighting

People have been electrically illuminating the nighttime for over a hundred years. Since then, improvements in illumination systems have been incremental, such that advancements are confined to the foundational principle of the original system:

Run wire to electrify a light bulb via a switch.

Over time, we’ve seen better wire, better bulbs, and better switches but otherwise no dramatic shifts in how we illuminate the nighttime.

Though this idea has worked for a very long time, it’s not perfect. Producing light is not very efficient and generates a significant amount of heat as a by-product (anywhere between 50-98% of the power is lost as heat). Though it might seem beneficial for light bulbs to give off heat in the winter, given that most light fixtures are installed in the ceiling, this heat is not effectively distributed. And, in the summertime the unwanted heat is entirely counterproductive (especially for air conditioners). As well, this manner of running wire for every bulb via a switch forces a system that is highly distributed. Such distribution significantly adds to the cost and complexity of illumination systems while making automation more difficult.  Automation of wire-to-switch-to-bulb systems requires substantially more back-wiring and complex digital or multiway switches, putting the costs (and kickass luxury/energy-saving capability) beyond a level that is affordable to the average homeowner.

Idea: instead of producing light in the room being illuminated, produce it centrally (in a mechanical room) and distribute it to the desired location via fibre optics.

The application of fibre optics for illumination confers many advantages. Fibre optic cable is cheaper, smaller, and safer than the wire running inside your walls. And, it can be split, combined, spliced, maneuvered, and the light output can be directed with ease. Non-polymer-based fibre optic cables lose very little energy over great lengths (>1km), making this technology scalable and applicable for residential and commercial environments.

Imagine a new panel in the mechanical room known as the light panel. Every time you flip a switch, it completes a low-voltage circuit (the cost of low-voltage wire is substantially less) tied into the light panel and in turn, a bulb within the panel turns on. The light generated by this bulb is concentrated and focused into a fibre optic line that terminates in the room where the switch is activated.  The “light fixture” then disperses the light from the fibre optic cable in the desired manner.

Given that all the bulbs are contained within the same location, it is feasible to control the heat given off by the active bulbs. When it is cold outside, the warmed air from the panel is fed directly into the ventilation system and thereby makes effective use of illumination inefficiency. When it is hot outside, the warmed air is vented outside to prevent the light bulbs from heating the interior space.

As well, because all the bulbs are on the light panel, automation is simply and cheaply incorporated into the intelligence of the panel. Sensors or switches throughout the house can be configured to activate or deactivate lights. For example, opening the front door of a house could activate the entry light at nighttime and closing the front door could turn off the entry light if it was manually turned on. As well, connecting the panel to the internet (as simple as plugging in an Ethernet cable) can allow control of the lights with a cellphone or computer.

Fibre optics are also more convenient for controlling illumination than conventional light bulbs. Though light typically exits out the end of a fibre optic line, if the outer casing of a fibre optic line is sanded, the fibre itself will glow. This property allows the fibre to illuminate an environment in a whole new way. For example, a sanded fibre can be installed along the edge of the ceiling of a room, producing outside-in illumination, rather than being forced to the conventional centre-out lighting. Additionally, lines can be spliced together to extend the reach of single line or split to multiply the number of terminations serviced by a single bulb.

There are challenges in implementing this idea, however. For example, there are no “light panels” available on the market that would allow interfacing between light sources and fibre optic cables. Luckily, LED bulbs emit light perpendicular to the crystal surface and therefore concentrating and focusing this light into a small area can be done efficiently. These panels would also require the development of a new standard for light bulbs and light fixtures. Because the purpose of these bulbs (to project light into the fibre optic cable) is substantially different than conventional bulbs, the design and shape of these new bulbs should also be a lot different. And, new safety considerations will be required for the intensity of light exiting the fibre optic cables, much like the way there are safety considerations for laser pointers. For instance, all exposed fibre terminations will need to be capped until they are fed into a fixture.

Fibre optic lighting will open a new avenue of intelligent and artistically unlimited lighting possibilities, all while being more affordable, more efficient, and safer.