Friday, January 25, 2013

New LiFi Technology Can Revolutionise Logistics and the World at Large

UK at Forefront of Work Which May Fundamentally Change Communications as Money Becomes Available
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – News in today of a four year programme being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which could well revolutionise the ways we communicate, with repercussions not only for the freight and logistics industries but far beyond. Over the next four years a consortium of UK universities led by the University of Strathclyde will be developing innovative technology to help unleash the full potential of ‘Li-Fi’ (Light Fidelity), the transmission of internet communications using visible light rather than the radio waves and microwaves currently in use. The research has the potential to enable trucks and cars to communicate with traffic furniture and each other.

Underpinning Li-Fi is the use of light emitting diodes (LED’s), a rapidly spreading lighting technology which is expected to become dominant over the next 20 years. Imperceptibly LED’s flicker on and off thousands of times a second and by altering the length of the flickers, it is possible to send digital information to specially adapted PCs and other electronic devices – making Li-Fi the digital equivalent of Morse Code. This would make the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum available for internet communications, easing pressure on the increasingly crowded parts now used.

Most readers will be familiar with LED’s in such mundane situations as their annual Christmas decorations or as miniature torch bulbs etc. but the scale of the new diodes makes the old style units look cumbersome in the extreme. Li-Fi LED’s are traditionally one square millimetre in size whereas the new LED’s are measured in microns (one micron is one millionth of a metre) and also flicker on and off 1,000 times quicker than the larger LED’s this also means they can transmit data more quickly. Secondly, 1,000 micron-sized LED’s would fit into the space occupied by a single larger LED, with each of these tiny LED’s acting as a separate communication channel.

A 1mm2 sized array of micron-sized LED’s could therefore communicate 1,000 x 1,000 (-i.e. a million) times as much information as one 1mm2 LED. Moreover, each micron-sized LED would act as a tiny pixel. So one large LED array display (e.g. used to light a living room, a meeting room or the interior of an aircraft), could also be used as a screen displaying information at exactly the same time as providing internet communications and the overall room lighting. Professor Martin Dawson of the University of Strathclyde, who is leading the initiative, says:

“Imagine an LED array beside a motorway helping to light the road, displaying the latest traffic updates and transmitting internet information wirelessly to passengers’ laptops, netbooks and smartphones. This is the kind of extraordinary, energy-saving parallelism that we believe our pioneering technology could deliver.”

The University of Strathclyde is one of Europe’s leading centres in research on the materials and device underpinnings of ‘Solid-State Lighting’, the transformative replacement of traditional incandescent and fluorescent lamps by energy-efficient, long-lasting and environmentally-friendly, semiconductor based LED technology. The University’s research in this area over the past decade has been funded by EPSRC, TSB, EU and RCUK programmes totalling more than £15 million. The University is establishing a new research centre, the Intelligent Lighting Centre (ILC), based on its leading R&D capability and housed in its innovative Technology and Innovation Centre, a £103 million research and innovation hub currently under construction.

The University of Strathclyde is also leading a new £4.6 million Programme Grant ‘Ultra-parallel visible light communications: UP-VLC’, funded by EPSRC from September 2012 to August 2016, which seeks to investigate the profound implications of solid-state lighting for next-generation optical communications. This programme, involving collaborations with the Universities of St. Andrews, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh, aims to pioneer the creation of an entirely new data communications infrastructure based on solid-state lighting, where lighting components provide both illumination and an ultra-high-bandwidth ‘Light Fidelity (Li-Fi)’ technology complimentary to traditional Wi-Fi.

Eventually, it may even be possible for the LEDs to incorporate sensing capabilities too. For example, your mobile phone could be equipped with a flash that you point at a shop display where everything has been given an electronic price tag, and the price of all the items and other information about them would show up on your phone’s display. To enable the remarkable potential to be realised, the consortium says it has drawn together a unique breadth and depth of expertise unmatched by any other Li-Fi research team anywhere in the world.

The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is 10,000 times bigger than the microwave part of the spectrum. Li-Fi could therefore make a huge contribution to enabling growing demand for internet communications to be met in future and the research team will harness LED’s made from gallium nitride, a material whose properties are ideal for high-power, high-frequency applications. The research has already led to the creation of spin off high tech companies such as mLED and pureVLC and the term LiFi was coined by Professor Harald Haas, one of the research partners, who can be seen HERE explaining the astonishing changes which this technology could engender.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture.

Yesterday the EPSRC announced where one assumes the money for this research will come from when Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, speaking at the Think Tank, Policy Exchange, announced a £350 million investment to be issued in February to fund new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT’s). The call for new Centres will be available from 6th February on the EPSRC website and Mr Willetts commented:

“Maintaining a healthy supply of skilled scientists, researchers and engineers is vital to our economy and society. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that EPSRC will be inviting universities to apply for a share of the £350 million available to support doctoral training in priority areas. This investment will ensure we have the knowledge and expertise to tackle the major challenges we face in the 21st century, from improving healthcare to developing greener energy.”

Photo: Professor Harald Haas giving a TED lecture in 2011.