As 2015 – The International Year of Light – kicks off, we look back at some recent enlightening developments in the world of science and technology.
2015 has been named the International Year of Light (IYL 2015) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The decision to devote an entire year to light stems from recognition of the key role light plays in all aspects of human existence: from photosynthesis – which forms the basis for all life on Earth – to the revolutionary technological changes light has brought to our everyday lives.
Examples abound in the fields of medicine, energy, communication and culture, and researchers continually create breakthroughs in optical technologies to tackle major global challenges. Here are some recent highlights:
Super-resolution microscopy techniques have pushed back the limits of optics, becoming an essential tool in the life sciences and providing spectacular glimpses into a previously invisible world. Taking advantage of laser beams and fluorescent molecules, today’s advanced microscopes enable scientists to visualise the details of living tissues at higher resolution than ever before. The ‘founding fathers’ of super-resolution microscopy won last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
LED lamps will light the 21st century – as declared by the committee that awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to three Japanese-born scientists for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Thanks to blue LEDs, bright and energy-saving white light sources have become a reality.
And while bright, white LEDs may not be the world’s cosiest source of light, a recent discovery could soon change that: scientists in the Netherlands have developed a new type of temperature-dependent coating on white LEDs, which could pave the way for lights that are not only energy efficient but also emit a cosy warm glow when dimmed.
LEDs can now also be used to reproduce sunlight in the laboratory. This has been a major challenge for scientists trying to create ideal growing conditions for algae – which could help meet the world’s demand for energy in the form of biofuel. A public-private partnership in Germany recently developed a unique combination of LED light and climate simulation to optimise algae cultivation.
Bottling of sunlight as hydrogen fuel is another strong contender in the race towards a post-fossil fuel future. In Switzerland, researchers have achieved record-high efficiency in conversion of solar energy into hydrogen gas using cheap, abundant materials – thereby getting a step closer to developing a viable artificial photosynthesis system.
Record-breaking laser technology opens up for new ways to quickly and accurately diagnose cancer and monitor food quality. Developed by scientists in Denmark, the new laser technology is based on a type of optical fiber that can carry infrared light with a higher wavelength than previously possible.
Fiber-optics technology has already become a cornerstone of modern communication, using pulses of light to transmit data and enabling the high speed of today’s internet traffic. Scientists are constantly competing with each other to set new records in data transmission. How high can the bar be raised?
Interactive lighting design aimed at defusing escalating behaviour is the concept of a brand new Dutch project called De‐escalate. Can dynamic light scenarios help to prevent people from losing self‐control and getting aggressive or abusive? That’s what the project team is hoping to find out, experimenting with light designs in a street said to have the highest density of pubs in the Netherlands.
IYL 2015 will kick off this month, with opening ceremonies to be held in Paris on 19-20 January. Over the course of 2015, a range of displays and events will be held to promote improved public and political understanding of the central role of light in the modern world, as well as to celebrate significant scientific anniversaries. And we will be back with more enlightening stories throughout the year.
– By Lillian Sando