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The future looks bright

Fibre optics are set to play a key role in lighting systems, providing big benefits in the home and workplace

Imagine a world where changing light bulbs is almost a thing of the past. Imagine a world where the installation of a lighting system takes just a matter of minutes. Imagine a world where lighting maintenance is carried out with no disruption to occupants. I have seen the future and it seems to work.

The answer is so simple it makes me wonder why it has not been used more often than it is now. It is a technology that has been around for some considerable time - fibre optics.

Fibre optics handle higher rates of data flow than traditional copper wires, resulting in faster and clearer transmissions for telecommunications, illumination products, medical devices and a variety of innovative sensors. They will certainly be more common in the future of all telematics and electronic processes. The regular use of fibre optics in domestic environments, as a light source or simply as an information and switching carrier, can only be a matter of time (see box below).

I remember the excitement when fibre optics were displayed on Tomorrow's World in the '70s. However, once the craze in kitsch, wavy-frond lamps died out, fibre optics seemed to have become marginal to common practice lighting choices, notwithstanding the fact that fibre-optic lighting is a regular feature of display case lighting in museums. Even though fibre optics found their way into manufacturing processes and industrial applications the technology has not really had a credible application in the building industry.

Why?

The idea is devastatingly simple - belying thorough research and development - and provides benefits which any economy-conscious client would be pleased to consider.

Glass fibre is just that; hundreds of strands of glass, microns thick, teased out into long threads and encased in protective tubing. Effectively, light shone down one end will be emitted at the other end and depending on the number of threads, transmit varying amounts of light.

Due to the flexibility of the glass and the tubing, light can be shone around corners and for long distances without significant loss of intensity.Depending on the number of bends and the lamp wattage, light can maintain its energy output for up to 20m (although lengths in excess of 10m are not recommended for general white light use).

Furthermore, light from a projector, shone into a manifold at one end, can be split into a range of fibre-optic cables, going in a variety of directions, so that one light source can illuminate many different locations.

Absolute Action, based in south London, has spent many years developing a series of fixtures and fittings, which have been used on diverse applications from warning lights under the Millennium Bridge on the Thames to illuminating the Hope Diamond in the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Absolute Action specialises in the research, manufacture and installation of lighting schemes, but, because of the deceptive complexity of the technology, it does not provide lighting level calculations.

It relies instead on on-site tests and expertise.Given that architects and clients often want to have performance 'guarantees', a certain amount of faith is needed to forego the design stage, lighting level contour map.

More applications Fibre optics are often used in conservation areas or in exhibition display cases because the light source can be remote from the output position and hence visual intrusion can be kept to a minimum. However, there are too many benefits from fibre optics for them to be confined to such a narrow range of projects. Although they may be currently uneconomic for domestic applications, they are well suited to commercial and workplace situations.

There is no heat or UV at the light emitter and therefore heat build up in offices due to the quantity and proximity of lamps can be done away with. Furthermore, the maintenance is straightforward and, more importantly, is separate from the active office environment.With fibre optic remote projectors, after installing the lighting, changing light bulbs should not involve a local handyman and a step ladder intruding clumsily into one's workspace.

Lighting cables can be draped along the top of the suspended ceiling and connected to the emitter, usually a small glass lens and a proprietary clip system attached to the ceiling tile.The spotlight lenses can be tinted or eccentrically positioned to throw light onto walls and dimming is carried out at the projector box with a simple iris mechanism over the lamp.

A lighting projector containing the lamp provides various intensities and it is interesting that tests show that the 2000 lux projector works best with a 150W halogen dichroic while the 3000 lux projector works better with a 50W halogen dichroic. The 6000 lux projectors are designed for commercial and industrial applications where low maintenance combined with a higher intensity are required. One projector box can easily provide 10 or 15 spotlights within an office suspended ceiling and - whether these are backed up by 'conventional' lighting or by additional fibre optics - will carry enough light for comfort.Task lighting by fibre optics is also a sensible utilisation of the heat-remote technology.

So the future looks bright for fibre optics, which can increasingly play a big part in improving comfort levels and lowering maintenance costs in the office (and homes) of tomorrow.

CANADIANS LOOK TO MAKE PHOTONIC SWITCH IN THE UK

Coldswitch Technologies of Canada is looking for investors in the UK to take forward plastic fibre-optic technology that looks set to revolutionise the electrics' industry.

With an eye on the building and automotive industries, prototype uses have already been tested in the medical sector. The idea, which is still in a developmental stage, is to omit electrical switching and replace it with light source-triggered switch gear - the photonic switch.

Normally, power cables run from the power source through the switching mechanism to complete the circuit to an appliance. A light switch, for example, stands in the way of the power supply to a light fitting and many accidents in the home are caused by shocks and shorts at those switches as the connection is made.By using fine plastic optical fibres, switching can be remote from the power source.Light, directly from a power source, travels through the tiny fibre cable and is emitted at the other end as a point source.

This light will reflect off a mirrored foil surface and complete a 'light circuit'. In this way, an electrical supply to a light fitting or socket can be taken directly to the socket and the on/off mechanism can be independently cabled via a nonelectrical branch feed optical cable to the switch.

By remotely siting the switch away from the power, the risk of accidents, short circuits, equipment failure and explosions is reduced and the possibilities for flexibility and enhanced product design are greatly enhanced.

As John Kidder, development manager of Coldswitch Technologies, says: 'This technology frees up the design of switches - and all products using switches - by transforming the outdated mechanical operations currently in use. Photonics is broader than bandwidth and this will enable us to be limited in its application only by our imaginations. Already photonics can treat cancer, cut metal, create images and - as far as this application is concerned - control power.'

The annual worldwide market for switches in the residential construction sector alone is £2.8 billion. By reducing the cost of the switch mechanism to fractions of the cost of traditional rockers, springs and metallic strips, these photonic devices are likely to be the next generation of safer, neater, cheaper and altogether cleverer switches.

For further details, contact John Kidder on 001 604 274 6866 in Richmond, British Columbia, or e-mail info@coldswitch.com

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