Science / Medicine : Polarization Brings Conservation to Light : Energy: Plastic panels invented three decades ago can cut a building's light bills in half and trim 25% off air-conditioning bills.


Myron Kahn can hardly control his excitement these days, what with President Bush actually saying the words "energy conservation" on national television in response to the Mideast oil crisis.

Every time Americans get nervous about all the energy they waste, Kahn, of Tarzana, receives a flurry of orders for the polarizing panels he invented three decades ago--thin lenses of plastic that can cut an office building's light bills by up to half and trim another 25% off the air-conditioning bills.

Interest is also mounting, albeit slowly, in various pockets of the country. Several utilities in California and other states have begun offering rebates to businesses that install the energy-saving panels. And in Sacramento, new statewide building guidelines for lighting will allow builders to opt for polarizing panels and other innovative techniques over traditional lighting systems.

The way polarization works is simple enough: The clear panels contain laminated layers that convert randomly vibrating light rays into a vertical pattern. Installed below ceiling lights, the panels transform the bothersome horizontal light rays that ricochet off desktops and computer screens and cause what we know as glare. With glare reduced, the eye sees richer colors and details. And when the useless horizontal rays become vertically polarized, they are better absorbed by objects and reflected back to the eye, further aiding vision.

That is why art museums often use natural lighting, and why artists love to paint under blue skies. Sunlight is automatically polarized during its passage through the Earth's atmosphere, creating a superior setting, here on the planet's surface, for the eye to judge color, texture and detail. Conversely, on an overcast day the polarizing effects are disrupted. The result is glare. That is why people often squint under a slate-gray sky.

What on earth does this have to do with cutting light bills by as much as half in the American workplace?

Glare creates most of the visual problems in the office or factory. According to several lighting experts, once the light is polarized, employees can see their computers, desktop papers, factory equipment or other work surfaces so much better that about one-quarter to one-half of the overhead light bulbs can simply be removed.

"It's an elegant and simple technology for minimizing glare," said lighting researcher Robert Sardinsky of the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute. "The real value is that if you reduce glare, you can reduce the quantity of light. A bright room is not the answer to good vision."

Not only are lighting bills slashed, according to independent studies, but the considerable heat generated by overhead light bulbs is reduced. That means air conditioners can be turned down, further cutting electrical costs. Employees working beneath polarizing panels also routinely report fewer headaches and reduced tension once glare is controlled.

Today, from IBM's complex in Lisbon, Portugal, to the Department of Water and Power headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, buildings that were once electricity hogs have gone on the energy diet prescribed by Kahn.

More than 30 million square feet of the desktop-size polarizing panels, selling for about $15 each, have been installed in 4,000 buildings worldwide since Kahn, 73, invented and patented them in the 1960s.

Which brings us to why Kahn, deeply troubled by events unfolding in Iraq and what they portend for the country's energy supply, is so keenly monitoring the White Houses's sudden interest in conservation.

For all its energy-saving properties, polarized light has never been widely accepted in America, where the major lighting conglomerates and large utility companies have generally pushed for the sale of more energy, more light bulbs and more lighting devices--not less.

Lighting industry spokesmen contend that they are waiting for more scientific proof that polarization significantly improves vision as it reduces glare. But the same groups have eagerly popularized other glare-control devices, from metal louvers to prismatic panels, without waiting for scientific documentation of significantly improved vision, Kahn says.

"The industries who benefit from selling unnecessary lamps, lighting fixtures and power have a stranglehold on America's future," he says. "All the skyscrapers going up today are using parabolic fixtures and other energy-wasting devices that create glare. It's going to cost a fortune in light bills over the lifetime of a building. But worse than that, we're using up energy as if it were water."

When it comes to conserving electricity, the economic stakes are indeed high. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental and conservation research group, has estimated that California's commercial ratepayers would save $2 billion a year if all existing and new buildings were outfitted with basic energy-efficient lighting systems now readily available. The calculations did not include polarized lighting.

The estimated $2-billion saving is equivalent to the electricity generated in a year by 4 1/2 oil-fueled power plants. The reduced demand would also mean that $7.5 billion worth of construction in new power plants could be avoided, according to the research group.

Because polarizing panels can achieve energy savings of 25% to 50%, they could play a meaningful role in cutting electricity demands in the United States. But Kahn faces an uphill battle, in part because most lighting designers have never even heard of polarizing panels.

Polarized lighting is so little known within the lighting industry that Southern California Edison Co.'s new demonstration laboratory--which purports to be a showcase for the latest in energy-efficient lighting techniques--has no display on the benefits of polarization.

Nor did the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is often on the cutting edge of new conservation techniques, include polarization in its high-tech lighting lab, opened in Seattle last year. One of the agency's researchers, who asked not to be named, said, "I don't know how this type of polarizing works, or what it is supposed to do for energy conservation."

Even graduates of top engineering schools still mistakenly try to correct glare in the workplace by throwing more artificial light into a room, according to lighting engineer Bill Jones, director of Lighting Research Laboratory in Orange.

"The last thing you should do is the first thing most people try--attacking bad vision with even more lighting," Jones said. "There's just a tremendous lack of education out there among people who really should know better."

Lighting experts say much of the ignorance stems from the fact that the Illuminating Engineering Society, an influential trade organization, has resisted pressure from Kahn and others to include recommendations for polarized lighting systems in its specifications manual.

The society's manual is a bible for American contractors, architects, engineers and interior designers when they create lighting systems for buildings.

H. Richard Blackwell, a world authority on lighting who has written hundreds of papers on the subject, said his studies in the 1970s, for which he won a prestigious Gold Medal award, showed that polarizing panels improved vision and required far less light than the room brightness levels recommended by the Illuminating Engineering Society.

"Illumination standards for buildings still do not include the information we had more than 15 years ago, and this strikes me as the most ridiculous thing in the world," said Blackwell, a professor emeritus at Ohio State University. "I fought hard for fair play for polarization . . . but the vested interests did not want to hear that less lamps and less lights were needed.

"My former students are now running the IES, and they seem to have developed bad habits. My feeling is that because national productivity and global energy are involved, it's no time for them to be acting cute."

Don Thomas, IES president and an executive of GTE-Sylvania, said the issue is more complex than the society's critics make it. While agreeing that polarizing panels are an effective shield against glare and allow reduced lighting, Thomas said the IES is not in a position to decide if polarization provides better vision than competing glare-control techniques.

"We need Myron's help, not his opposition," Thomas said. "We need money and support to research these things."

He denied a frequent charge by critics that the IES has fallen into the same profit-motivated syndrome that afflicted Detroit car manufacturers, who failed for years to make American automobiles gas-efficient and were finally forced to do so by the government during the 1970s oil crisis.

"That's an unfair charge," Thomas said. "It's not good marketing to hoodwink the public into buying more when it's not needed."

(The IES bases its recommendations on the light measurement known as foot-candles, a formula arrived upon in the 1930s that is not correlated to vision, but simply assesses the brightness thrown off by a given light source. The society's recommended light levels for a given task, from sewing to typing, were increased steadily from the 1950s until the 1970s oil crisis.)

Many conservation experts fear that once the current oil crisis subsides, energy-efficient technologies that have been struggling for national recognition, such as polarizing panels, will lose their momentum.

A number of other forces are at play, however, that may help elevate polarized lighting to the consumer's shopping list of environmentally conscious products.

Utility companies in Massachusetts and California have begun offering rebates to businesses that install polarizing panels to cut electricity use. The data-processing industry, hoping to reduce computer-screen glare that causes headaches and impedes worker productivity, is looking for ways to adapt the principles of polarized lighting to computer equipment. And Suffolk County in New York has approved laws to protect employees at video-display terminals by using overhead polarized panels to improve vision and reduce glare.

Moreover, California's Energy Commission, a national trend-setter, last month published new statewide lighting guidelines, which recommend that designers install lighting based upon how well the eye actually sees, instead of relying solely on the Illuminating Engineering Society's standards for room brightness.

Aimed at promoting energy conservation, the new guidelines recommend as an option to the longtime IES standards a visual performance measurement developed by Blackwell known as equivalent spherical illumination.

"You might say the new guidelines pry the door open for intelligent lighting technology a little bit," said lighting engineer Jones, a member of the advisory committee that wrote the guidelines, and a fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society, "but not nearly enough."

POLARIZING LIGHT Polarized light panels can reduce energy costs and improve effective vision by reducing surface reflections and glare. Here's a look at light waves and how they are polarized. Normal Light Normal light beams consist of rays vibrating in random directions. The waves vibrating vertically produce better contrast and color, enhancing vision. Horizontal waves produce glare. Polarized light Polarized light consists of waves vibrating in primarily one plane. Normal light can be polarized using a special multi-layer filter which permits vertically vibrating planes of light to pass through. Most important, the multi-layer filter causes light traveling the horizontal plane to bounce back and forth until it is converted to vertical-plane light, which then passes through the filter. This system is different from linear polarized sunglasses, which block out light vibrating in the horizontal plane.

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