August 30, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Let there be light, optical cables included
A company called Sunlight Direct is developing a hybrid solar lighting system that distributes daylight into buildings through fiber-optic cabling, even to people not seated near windows.
The notion of maximizing outdoor light inside is common in interior design by using various methods, including skylights and even roof-mounted tubes with mirrors.
But Sunlight Direct is taking a high-tech approach by seeking to create a commercial product from Department of Energy research.
Its hybrid solar lighting system features a 40-inch mirrored dish with a GPS-director monitor to move it during the day and maximize light intake. Once light is collected from a roof and concentrated, it is filtered and then spread through a building through bundles of plastic fiber-optic chords.
About 25 retail outlets and office buildings are testing the company's system, which the company hopes to bring to market early next year.
The selling points are lower electricity bills and the benefits that natural light has on people, whether they are employees or customers, according to the company.
"No longer do you need to be the CEO in the corner office. You can have daylight piped into the office," said Duncan Earl, the company's chief technology officer. "Natural lighting is just the best lighting for humans."
A daylight distribution system can reduce the amount of power consumed during the middle of the day, when demand on the electricity grid is highest. Sunlight Direct estimates that its hybrid solar lighting system can result in saving up to $8,000 per year per unit.
Sunlight Direct is one of a growing number of companies seeking business opportunities while energy prices and concerns over the environment are high.
Another company called Ice Energy, for example, has created a product that was conceived from Department of Energy research.
Its air conditioner, which freezes water at night to cool refrigerant, has become more economically viable because of higher electricity prices and a soaring demand for power worldwide, according to CEO Frank Ramirez.
Happy people buy more
Sunlight Direct's technology, started ten years ago at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., originally was conceived with an eye toward energy efficiency, said Earl.
However, Sunlight Direct is finding that the less tangible benefits of natural light on people are also prompting its initial customers to test out the system.
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