NASA-funded research to understand how light affects humans and plants has had benefits far beyond space. It has helped develop biologically oriented LED technology for everyday life on Earth.
When the fluorescent lighting fixtures on the space station needed to be replaced in 2011, NASA looked to the growing field of solid-state light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Solid-state means that there’s no physical reaction creating light, unlike an incandescent bulb or fluorescent plasma.
Researchers at National Space Biomedical Research Institute and engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida worked together on the Solid-State Lighting Assembly (SSLA) for the space station. The lamp module was primarily built by Bionetics Corporation, which also had labs and manufacturing facilities on-site at Kennedy. The new lighting modules, installed in 2016, consumed far less energy and emitted far less heat than previous fluorescent lighting on the station.
The change paid off, as astronauts reported feeling better-rested. LED modules also helped in plant-growth experiments on the space station, with the lights providing the right wavelengths for photosynthesis.
Lessons learned from the space station lighting modules soon made their way onto the market. After completing the initial system, several members of the Bionetics team moved to another company called Lighting Science to keep working on solid-state lighting.
The company developed a wide range of bulbs that reflected the NASA research for human health and plant growth. In 2018, Lighting Science spun off several companies, each developing technologies based on the original circadian LEDs.
Healthe Inc. of Orlando, FL, was one of the first. The company’s primary market is in LED bulbs designed for keeping circadian rhythms in check.
One product line, the GoodDay and GoodNight bulbs, is based off older designs originally made by Lighting Science, specifically tuned to emit wavelengths to induce wakefulness and sleepiness. Another line, called SunTrac, can be paired to an app or an outside light meter that automatically adjusts the light throughout the day.
More recently, Healthe began using its technology to assist in decontamination and air filtration. Designed to fit into a standard ceiling lighting grid, these systems use ultraviolet light, which inactivates pathogens, paired with a fan and filter. Instead of bathing a room in UV light, the units suck in air through an intake and into an internal chamber, where it’s blasted with rays in the shortest, most potent range of ultraviolet wavelengths, known as UVC. The air is then filtered before it comes out into the room. Healthe has installed its UV systems in buildings that, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, have been looking to expand their sanitization protocols.
Another lighting spinoff that has capitalized on that company’s experience working with NASA is VividGro of Chicago, which primarily sells to industrial cultivators.
This technology also has its origins in the LED lighting designed for the space station. Like the space station lighting array they’re derived from, VividGro’s lamps use specific wavelengths to induce biological reactions in living organisms. Instead of managing human biorhythms, however, they’re tuned exactly to the right frequencies to power plant metabolism.
The company’s FlowerMax line is intended to provide for flowering plants, while the VegMax lights are designed for growing vegetables like lettuce. In 2021, the company was acquired by AgTech Holdings, and its products are exclusively distributed by the controlled environment agriculture company GroAdvisor.
Read this article and other NASA Spin-Offs at spinoff.nasa.gov .