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Let the Sun Shine In: Redirecting Sunlight to Urban Alleyways

Companies mentioned in this article: The Optical Society

WASHINGTON -- (BUSINESS WIRE) -- In dense, urban centers around the world, many people live and work in dim and narrow streets surrounded by tall buildings that block sunlight. And as the global population continues to rise and buildings are jammed closer together, the darkness will only spread.

A dim street in a dense urban area in Egypt, in which the light-directing panel could be deployed. ( ...

A dim street in a dense urban area in Egypt, in which the light-directing panel could be deployed. (Photo: Business Wire)

To alleviate the problem, Egyptian researchers have developed a corrugated, translucent panel that redirects sunlight onto narrow streets and alleyways. The panel is mounted on rooftops and hung over the edge at an angle, where it spreads sunlight onto the street below. The researchers describe their design in a paper published today in Energy Express, a supplement of The Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal Optics Express.

"We expect the device to provide illumination to perform everyday tasks, and improve the quality of light and health conditions in dark areas," said Amr Safwat, a professor of electronics and communications engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. These dimly lit areas specifically include narrow streets in developing countries, but Safwat said the new panel could be used in any country as a greener, cheaper, and more pleasant alternative to fluorescent and other artificial light.

While other commercially available window-like devices can redirect light, they are designed for shade and redirecting glare or for brightening a room—not a narrow street. So the researchers decided to create their own design. They wanted a simple way to redistribute natural light without the need for a tracking device that follows the rising and setting sun.

What they came up with is a panel made of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), the same acrylic plastic of which Plexiglas is made. The bottom of the panel is smooth while the top is covered in ridges that are based on a sine wave, the mathematical function that describes everything from light to pendulums. The researchers used computer simulations to find the size and shape of the grooves that distribute the most amount of sunlight in a wide range of sun positions all year round, whether it's high or low in the sky. A sine-wave pattern is also easy to manufacture.

Using simulations of sunlight shining on an alleyway, the researchers found that their panels increased illumination by 200 percent and 400 percent in autumn and winter, respectively, when sunlight is most limited. They also tested a small prototype over a 0.4-meter-by-0.4-meter shaft that is 1.2-meters deep and found that it lit up the area as designed.

The next step, Safwat said, will be to build a full-scale model 10 times bigger to validate their calculations and to test it in a real alleyway. The team then plans to market and commercialize the panel. He estimates that a one-square-meter panel and a frame will cost between $70 and $100.

And that may be a small price to pay for the benefits of sunlight. The lack of sun in urban areas doesn't just make life gloomy; it can be harmful to your health, Safwat said.

"Research has shown that lack of natural lighting can cause severe physiological problems," such as serious mood changes, excessive sleeping, loss of energy and depression, Safwat said.

He also noted that using sunlight to illuminate historical places—such as ancient alleyways in Egypt—also helps preserve the authenticity of the site, maintaining its cultural value and historical significance.

This work was funded by the Science and Technology Development Fund of Egypt.

Paper: “Illumination of dense urban areas by light redirecting panels,” S. I. El-Hanawy, et al., Optics Express, Vol. 22, Issue S3, pp. A895-A907 (2014).

EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution images are available to members of the media upon request. Contact Angela Stark, astark@osa.org.

About Energy Express

The Optical Society's (OSA) premier open-access journal, Optics Express, publishes a bimonthly supplement, Energy Express. This supplement is dedicated to new developments in the science and engineering of light and their impact on sustainable energy, the environment, and green technologies. It is led by Editor Christian Seassal from CNRS, University of Lyon, France and is available at no cost to readers online at www.OpticsInfoBase.org/EE.

About Optics Express

Optics Express reports on new developments in all fields of optical science and technology every two weeks. The journal provides rapid publication of original, peer-reviewed papers. It is published by The Optical Society and edited by Andrew M. Weiner of Purdue University. Optics Express is an open-access journal and is available at no cost to readers online at www.OpticsInfoBase.org/OE.

About OSA

Founded in 1916, The Optical Society (OSA) is the leading professional society for scientists, engineers, students and business leaders who fuel discoveries, shape real-world applications and accelerate achievements in the science of light. Through world-renowned publications, meetings and membership programs, OSA provides quality research, inspired interactions and dedicated resources for its extensive global network of professionals in optics and photonics. For more information, visit www.osa.org.


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