The Remote Possibilities of Fiber-Optics
While fiber optics are revolutionizing the communications industry, their adoption into general lighting applications have been slow at best, especially in the U.S. The reasons behind this lack of exploration are varied, with the most common factors being a high initial cost, a general lack of standardized data and difficulty of simply finding quality components.
While fiber optics are revolutionizing the communications industry, their adoption into general lighting applications have been slow at best, especially in the U.S. The reasons behind this lack of exploration are varied, with the most common factors being a high initial cost, a general lack of standardized data and difficulty of simply finding quality components. Nevertheless, some information exists—mostly overseas—for those lighting designers willing to dig, and the unique benefits of fiber optics as a means of light delivery continue to intrigue more than a few in the industry.
The case for optics
Fiber-optic lighting systems, also known as remote-source lighting, are not a new technology. The basic principle is to carrying illumination from a source to a space via fiber-optic cabling. A common system typically entails three components: a source lamp (halogen or metal-halide being the best suited and most used) in a box with an integrated ventilator; a bundle, or a harness, of glass or plastic fibers with any number of individual "tails" stretching to their point of delivery; and a fixture that protects the end of the fiber and diffuses or colors the light.
The primary quality, and benefit, of this arrangement is the flexibility it offers. Illumination can be accomplished without fixtures or electrical wiring at the point of light delivery, easing installation and maintenance. This has lead to its use for architectural accenting.
In addition, fiber optics do not distribute heat or electricity, and can be arranged with filters that block UV rays. Thus, fiber optics have been largely used in Europe, and to a certain degree in America, as the perfect display light in museums or retail stores, providing light without damaging artwork or products.
But there are many cases for other uses of fiber optics, reaching into functional and even ambient lighting in many buildings.
In hazardous or underwater environments, removing heat and electricity can understandably increase safety. In refrigerated spaces, removing heat has obvious benefits. The lack of electrical wiring can also be important in spaces that house equipment that may be sensitive to electrical interference. In tight or unaccessible spaces, remotely locating the light source eases maintenance considerably. In historic retrofits, fiber optics can completely update lighting without compromising a structure.
Although not generally considered specifically for energy efficiency, especially with the emergence of other lighting technologies, there are some reasons why fiber optics offer energy benefits. For example, using one metal-halide lamp to provide a number of luminaires for task lighting certainly saves resources compared to a distributed system using standard light fixtures. In addition, removing lamps from the space removes a source of radiant heat, which has a direct effect on cooling loads.
Finally, the longevity and operational costs of fiber optics offer another list of benefits: The cabling, especially those constituted of glass, is almost certain to outlast other building componentry, and metal-halide lamps can generally last comparatively longer than other light sources.
The next step
The initial cost of these systems still rise far above conventional lighting. As the sophistication of the technology and production grows, this disparity should lessen, although it is doubtful that it will ever compete on a first-cost basis. This cost issue, combined with the fact that specifiers and lighting designers often need to go on a pilgrimage to find quality fiber-optic data and componentry, has not yet created an environment conducive to fiber-optic lighting installations.
Simply put, it is much easier to rely on reliable methods that have years of data and performance backing them up. And specifying fiber optics requires a great degree of planning, not only from an illumination design standpoint, but also in terms of space layout and ensuring the proper equipment.
But in an environment where energy-efficiency hopefully becomes the norm, and lighting design begins to draw attention at the very beginning of a project, a technology such as fiber-optic lighting should gain the opportunity to prove its worth.
For a list of resources and links on fiber-optic lighting, visit "Deep Links" at www.csemag.com
Primary Fiber-Optic Lighting Applications