Light tubes or light pipes are used for transporting or distributing natural or artificial light. In their application to daylighting, they are also often called sun pipes, solar pipes, solar light pipes, or daylight pipes.
Generally speaking, a light pipe or light tube may refer to:
Both have the purpose of lighting, for example in Architecture.
Also known as a "tubular skylight", "Sunscoop" or "tubular daylighting device", this is the oldest and most widespread type of light tube used for daylighting. The concept was originally developed by the ancient Egyptians. The first commercial reflector systems were patented and marketed in the 1850s by Paul Emile Chappuis in London, utilising various forms of angled mirror designs. Chappuis Ltd's reflectors were in continuous production until the factory was destroyed in 1943. The concept was rediscovered in 1991 with the Solatube from Australia based on a patent of 1986. The system has been marketed for widespread residential and commercial use under various generic names, such as "Sunscoop", "solar pipe", "light pipe", "light tube", "daylight pipe", "tubular skylight" and "tubular daylighting device".
A tube lined with highly reflective material leads the light rays through a building, starting from an entrance-point located on its roof or one of its outer walls. A light tube is not intended for imaging (in contrast to a periscope, for example), thus image distortions pose no problem and are in many ways encouraged due to the reduction of "directional" light.
The entrance point usually comprises a dome (cupola), which has the function of collecting and reflecting as much sunlight as possible into the tube. Many units also have a directional "collectors", "reflectors" or even Fresnel lens devices that assist in collecting additional directional light down the tube.
A set-up in which a laser cut acrylic panel is arranged to redirect sunlight into a horizontally or vertically orientated mirrored pipe, combined with a light spreading system with a triangular arrangement of laser cut panels that spread the light into the room, was developed at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. In 2003, Veronica Garcia Hansen, Ken Yeang, and Ian Edmonds were awarded the Far East Economic Review Innovation Award in bronze for this development.
Light transmission efficiency is greatest if the tube is short and straight. In longer, angled, or flexible tubes, part of the light intensity is lost. To minimize losses, a high reflectivity of the tube lining is crucial; manufacturers claim reflectivities of their materials, in the visible range, of up to 98 to almost 99.5 percent.
At the end point (the point of use), a diffuser spreads the light into the room.
To further optimize the use of solar light, a heliostat can be installed which tracks the movement of the sun, thereby directing sunlight into the light tube at all times of the day as far as the surroundings´ limitations allow, possibly with additional mirrors or other reflective elements that influence the light path. The heliostat can be set to capture moonlight at night.
A similar system, but using optical fibers of glass, had earlier been under study in Japan.
In view of the usually small diameter of the fibers, an efficient daylighting set-up requires a parabolic collector to track the sun and concentrate its light.
Optical fibers intended for light transport need to propagate as much light as possible within the core; in contrast, optical fibers intended for light distribution are designed to let part of the light leak through their cladding.
The 3M company developed a system based on optical lighting film and developed the 3M light pipe, which is a light guide designed to distribute light uniformly over its length, with a thin film incorporating microscopic prisms, which has been marketed in connection with artificial light sources, e.g. sulfur lamps.
In contrast to an optical fiber which has a solid core, a prism light guide leads the light through air and is therefore referred to as hollow light guide.
The project ARTHELIO, partially funded by the European Commission, was an investigation in years 1998 to 2000 into a system for adaptive mixing of solar and artificial light, and which includes a sulfur lamp, a heliostat, and hollow light guides for light transport and distribution.
In the context of seasonal affective disorder, it may be worth consideration that an additional installation of light tubes increases the amount of natural daily light exposure. It could thus possibly contribute to residents´ or employees´ well-being while avoiding over-illumination effects.
Compared to artificial lights, light tubes have the advantage of providing natural light and of saving energy. The transmitted light varies over the day; should this not be desired, light tubes can be combined with artificial light in a hybrid set-up.
Some artificial light sources are marketed which have a spectrum similar to that of sunlight, at least in the human visible spectrum range, as well as low flicker. In some cases, their spectrum varies dynamically such as to mimick the changes of natural light over the day. Manufacturers and vendors of such light sources claim that their products can provide the same or similar health effects as natural light. When considered as alternatives to solar light pipes, such products may have lower installation costs but do consume energy during use; therefore they may well be more wasteful in terms of overall energy resources and costs.
On a more practical note, light tubes do not require electric installations or insulation, and are thus especially useful for indoor wet areas such as bathrooms and pools. From a more artistic point of view, recent developments, especially those pertaining to transparent light tubes, open new and interesting possibilities for architectural design.
Light tube indicators make electronics cheaper to manufacture since the old way would be to mount a tiny lamp into a small socket directly behind the spot to be illuminated. This often requires extensive hand-labor for installation and wiring. Light tubes permit all lights to be mounted on a single flat circuit board, but the illumination can be directed up and away from the board by several inches, wherever it is required.