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Will fiber optics replace the lightbulb?

They distribute data and can separate cells from one other. But can they adequately light a room? Photos: Fiber optics lighting the way

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
If fiber-optic lighting systems are good enough for the Declaration of Independence, they should be good enough for the dairy case, explains John Davenport, CEO of Fiberstars.

The Solon, Ohio-based company has come up with a way to combine industrial-grade lamps with fiber-optic technology to create interior lighting systems that consume far less energy than traditional fluorescent or incandescent bulbs. A single 70-watt metal halide high-intensity discharge lamp from Fiberstars linked to the company's fiber system can provide as much lighting as eight 50-watt incandescent bulbs.

"We consume about one-third of the energy of the best fluorescent systems and about 25 percent of the typical fluorescent system," he said. Additionally, fiber lighting won't emit mercury (like fluorescent bulbs, if broken), radiate heat or give off ultraviolet light.

fiber optics

To date, the company, which was founded in the late 1980s and has received around $16 million in federal research grants, has mostly sold its EFO (efficient fiber optics) lighting systems for use in niche applications, in part because fiber costs more. Las Vegas hotels have bought them to beam special effects onto ceilings and walls.

Swimming-pool manufacturers have gravitated to the company's lights because all the electronics are located outside the water, thereby eliminating the threat of electrocution. The Declaration of Independence is lighted by a Fiberstars system because the light source does not emit ultraviolet rays or heat.

"We just did the Magna Carta a couple of months ago," Davenport said.

In 2005, it pulled in $28.3 million in revenue and reported a $7.4 million loss.

Rising electricity prices, combined with new regulations, however, could push EFO lighting closer toward the mainstream. The W Hotel in New York plans to install the lights in its notoriously murky hallways.

Whole Foods Market has replaced incandescent lights in its seafood departments at various stores with EFO. Not only is electricity consumption down, the ambient temperature of the seafood departments has dropped.

Grocery chain Albertson's ran a trial showing that the lights can reduce energy consumption in freezers. It will now test EFO to light seafood, wine, vegetables and other products. Traditional lights melt ice and can change the flavor of wine.

"There's a huge problem with potato greening," said Keith Tarver, an engineering manager at Albertson's. "It removes all of the heat out of the freezer case."

Residential EFO lighting may come next year, Davenport said.

Electric octopus
EFO essentially revolves around taming metal halide lights. Metal halide lamps are extremely efficient, capable of putting out 90 lumens per watt of energy. (A lumen is a measure of emitted visible light.) A typical incandescent bulb might produce 15 lumens per watt or less; most of the energy in lightbulbs actually gets converted into heat.

A halogen lamp might crank out 18 to 20 lumens per watt. Although longer-lasting and more efficient than incandescent lights, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) also emit heat; the heat comes out of the back rather than where the light comes out.

Unfortunately, metal halide lights work best for illuminating large areas. Big-box retailers like Costco Wholesale deploy 400-watt metal halide lamps on their ceilings. Civil engineers use them to illuminate roads.

To solve that problem, Fiberstars takes the light from the lamp and then distributes it through flexible plastic cables. Thus, the single light source serves to illuminate several different "bulbs."

The light emanating from the end of the fiber-optic cable can come out as a single beam of light or, to make it more aesthetically pleasing, the company can insert a lens at the end of the fiber-optic cables that create diffuse lighting (what you have in your living room) or project special effects.

An EFO system is more expensive than regular lighting systems. The lower electricity bills, however, pay back the price premium in two or fewer years. Southern California Edison conducted a four-month test at an Albertson's in Fullerton, Calif., in 2005.

The system was installed in about 40 freezer cases. The study determined that the lights could save $5,885 in a store with 100 fridge and freezer cases, about the average. Payoff could occur in about 1.8 years. The estimated annual electricity savings for each door was 535 kilowatt hours.

"We're still kind of mulling the rollout part. With any new technology, there is a bit of a challenge with the retrofit," said Tarver. Nonetheless, he added, "the technology is great."

Even with the premium, regulations may prompt businesses to adopt the technology. Federal and state mandates have cracked down on the amount of electricity different businesses can consume or the type of lights they install.

Texas, Massachusetts and some other states are also offering rebates for installing fiber lights. A similar regulatory change prompted appliance makers to develop energy-efficient refrigerators, dryers and washing machines in the 1970s that are now dominant in the field.

Fiberstars makes all of the major components in its lighting system, including the light source, the fiber-optic cable and the integrated optics that distribute the light. In the future, it may outsource the production of some products or license its intellectual property (the company has 43 patents) to other, larger manufacturers.