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Industry News
NSF Awards $18.5 Million For Smart Lighting Center
October 9, 2008

The US National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $18.5m grant to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) of Troy, NY along with partners Boston University and the University of New Mexico (UNM) as the three primary research universities forming a new ‘Smart Lighting Center’ ERC (Engineering Research Center). 

The Smart Lighting Center (SLC) aims to develop LED technologies that, along with energy savings for lighting homes and offices, can also impact a diverse range of applications including bio-imaging, high-efficiency displays and illumination devices, safer transportation, and novel modes of networking (e.g. free-space optical communications coexisting with LED illumination). 

The new center will be staffed by 30 faculty researchers (20 from RPI and 10 from Boston and UNM), plus students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting industry engineers. Led by E. Fred Schubert (RPI's Wellfleet senior constellation professor of future chips), at RPI a multidisciplinary team will focus on three main research thrusts: novel materials, device technology, and systems applications, in order to further the understanding and proliferation of smart lighting technologies. Meanwhile, the University of New Mexico will concentrate on nanomaterials and devices, supporting testbeds in bioimaging and displays. In addition to work on nanomaterials and photonic crystals, Boston's main contribution will be on LED communications and computer networking systems. “As we switch from incandescent and compact florescent lighting to LEDs in the coming years, we can simultaneously build a faster and more secure communications infrastructure at a modest cost along with new and unexpected applications,” says professor Thomas Little, ERC associate director and SLC/Boston University site coordinator. The SLC presents unique opportunities, especially related to ubiquitous computing and sensor networks, giving traditional lighting vendors an entry into the telcom and service provision business, he adds. “Smart lighting offers the potential to reshape and advance wireless communications technology,” comments Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of Boston University’s College of Engineering.

Including the possibility for a second five-year renewal of $18.5m, over the next 10 years the project is expected to receive up to $50m in funding. Starting in September, funding for the center’s first year includes $3.25m from the NSF (which should increase over the next several years), plus $700,000 from New York state, more than $500,000 from RPI, and almost $1m from 18 industrial partners (ranging from lighting firms to start-ups, enlisted to help guide strategic planning, spur innovation, and provide university students with first-hand experience in entrepreneurship as well as corporate R&D). Innovations will be rapidly commercialized through industrial partners while securing intellectual property. To facilitate and stimulate technology transfer, the center will also partner with the Center for Economic Growth in Albany, NY, the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA), and small business incubators at each partner university.

“I am delighted to welcome RPI to the ERC ‘family’ as a lead institution for the NSF ERC for Smart Lighting,” says Lynn Preston, leader of the NSF’s ERC Program. The Smart Lighting Center joins four other new ERCs in 2008, the start of the third generation of over 50 ERCs established since 1985. “The Smart Lighting ERC is the first in our extensive portfolio of ERCs in optics and electronics that focuses on advancing LED technology for new lighting systems that will have the capacity to deliver increased functionality in displays, transportation, and communication systems with significant savings in energy use," Preston adds.  

“Not only will this help the state and nation achieve our energy efficiency objective, it will also advance our economic objectives by establishing a technology leadership position in an area with tremendous commercial opportunities,” says Edward Reinfurt, executive director of the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation. 

“Our participation in this center offers a chance for our engineering students and faculty to create energy-saving technologies that will improve our society and create new business opportunities,” says UNM president David Schmidly. “This program will also have a strong focus on outreach, and we anticipate that the new field of smart lighting will increase the number and diversity of students entering science, math, and engineering education.”  

Outreach partners for the new ERC are Washington’s Howard University, Baltimore's Morgan State University, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. In additional, Korea’s Chonbuk National University, Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University and the Taiwan National University, and Lithuania's Vilnius University will support the ERC with expertise and international perspectives.

Along with broadening the knowledge base of smart lighting, Schubert expects the center to be a hub for commercializing related technology, where students and academic researchers work side-by-side with companies large and small to test, validate, and bring new products to the marketplace. “This new center will energize the field of photonics, and it reinforces the vision that smart light sources will soon antiquate Thomas Edison’s light bulb,” Schubert says. “The Smart Lighting ERC will also be a catalyst for developing and realizing new, yet unexpected applications for photonics.” 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. “The capabilities of smart lighting surpasses and transcends the abilities of conventional lighting,” Schubert continues. “With smart lighting, we have absolute control over every aspect of the light, from polarization to temporal modulation and spectral composition,” he adds. “We can custom tailor a light source for nearly any imaginable scientific or commercial application.” 

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