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Energy Efficiency

Air Force Puts Muscle Behind New Ultra-Efficient Lighting System

u.s. air force funds research into new microplasma energy efficient lightingThe U.S. Air Force is the force behind a new energy-efficient, high performance lighting system that also sets a high bar for its focus on lifecycle sustainability, from raw materials to recycling and disposal. If that all sounds a bit touchy-feely, consider the military logistics of supplying and disposing light bulbs over all five branches of the armed services, from fighting equipment to office lighting, and you can see the incentive for trimming things down to a more manageable – and less expensive – level.

Air Force Funding for Energy Efficient Lighting

The new research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in partnership with researchers based at the University of Illinois, which resulted in the formation of a company called Eden Park Illumination, Inc. Its signature line of research is a microplasma lighting system that is a far cry from the anything on the market today. There is nothing round, curved, or bulby-looking about it. Instead, it comes in the form of a thin, flat wafer punctuated with arrays of tiny holes.

Microplasmas and Lighting

The new system may look revolutionary but it is deeply rooted in standard fluorescent lighting technology. It is based on a plasma or ionized gas, which is a ubiquitous form of matter found in everything from neon signs to the Sun. The research team found that they could achieve unique lighting properties by depositing microscopic amounts of a plasma into tiny holes. The small dimensions of the micro-cavities enable the plasma to achieve a higher pressure without losing stability.

Building a Better Light Bulb

The team used aluminum foil to imprint the cavities. When sealed in glass sheets and further “ruggedized,” the resulting wafer is only about four millimeters thick. So far, the typical microplasma wafer under development is about six inches square, weighs about 200 grams and contains about 250,000 microcavities. It is far more compact and efficient than a conventional fluorescent light bulb, and it generates far less heat than another emerging energy-efficient technology, LEDs (light emitting diodes).

Why the Air Force Cares About Energy Efficient Light Bulbs

The relatively high output, low weight, small size and stable, cool-running properties of microplasma lighting is of particular interest to the Air Force because of the potential for yielding high performance in aircraft cockpits, both for general lighting and for information displays, without adding significant bulk to the cramped space. But, that’ s just part of the picture.

The new lighting system also has several other features that dovetail with the Department of Defense’s environmental policies.  In addition to their inherent efficiency, microplasma arrays are fully dimmable, a feature that can save energy by enabling users to tailor the light to specific needs – or enable a “smart” system to do the tailoring automatically when people keep forgetting to use the dimmer.

Microplasma arrays also require less material by bulk to produce the same amount of light as a much larger fluorescent bulb. That offers the potential for saving additional energy in the manufacturing stage of the device’s lifecycle.

Another lifecycle consideration is disposal, and the new system was engineered specifically to take advantage of three materials that can be recycled with relatively low-energy processes: plastic, glass and aluminum.

One final consideration for the military is the absence of mercury in the microplasma array. Mercury is a hazardous material used in standard fluorescent bulbs, so a mercury-free bulb helps to reduce the logistics of storage and recycling, while also eliminating the risk of exposure from broken bulbs.

U.S. Air Force and Sustainability

The Air Force’s foray into sustainable lighting is part of a broader green package that includes solar energy and electric vehicles at Air Force bases, biofuels for the Thunderbirds demonstration team, and even green roofs. It also includes a growing emphasis on winning more public support for sustainable federal energy policies as a counter-measure to Republican opposition in Congress, one example being the military’s first ever joint Army-Air Force Energy Forum this summer and a series of media roundtables this fall.

The new microplasma array lighting system is not in commercial production yet, but stay tuned.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force, some rights reserved by LuaCheia72.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey


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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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