LEDs light the way for UCD engineer

17 Oct 2014

Laura Tobin, PhD student at the School of Engineering in University College Dublin

Laura Tobin is looking at smarter ways to light up our lives. The engineering PhD candidate spoke to Claire O’Connell.

It’s hard to remember a time when LEDs, weren’t everywhere. As well as lighting up your phone screens, bicycle lights (the evenings are getting dark!) and indicator lamps, energy-efficient light emitting diodes hit the headlines earlier this month when the Nobel Prize in physics went to the discovery of blue LEDs, which enabled white light from LED sources.

Bright idea for LED technology

Laura Tobin, a PhD student at the School of Engineering in University College Dublin (UCD), has her eye on another use for LED technology, too: as variable light sources that can be used both in the lab to test solar cells and in homes, schools and offices to work more in harmony with our natural day/night cycles.

The idea was initially sparked when Tobin and colleagues saw the need for more robust and cheaper ‘solar simulators’ in the lab.

“One of the pieces of equipment that we use in the lab is called the solar simulator – the light that comes from this lamp simulates natural sunlight so we can test solar cells to see how well they work,” she explains. “But solar simulators are very expensive and they can be hard to calibrate.”

Tobin’s research showed how LED lights could be varied to mimic sunlight too, and she now wants to translate the findings into time-responsive lamps that can adjust the quality of the light over the course of the day.

“They could be used to test solar cells in the lab,” she says. “And outside of use in research, the technology could be used in indoor lighting to change the levels of blue wavelength depending on the time of day, because you want more blue during the day and less in the evening, to keep in tune with circadian rhythms.”

CleanWeb Sprint Award

Last May, Tobin won the UCD CleanWeb Sprint Award for her business plans. The ‘Sprint’ is a new initiative run by UCD Earth Institute and UCDinnovation to introduce researchers to aspects of commercialisation, and Tobin got plenty to think about in that single day.

“We learned about lean business models and we learned about the importance of finance and branding and thinking about your customer,” she says. “Those are the kinds of things that you need to be thinking about, as well as getting your prototype up and running.”

Making changes

Alongside her research and business plans, Tobin is actively involved in ‘making’ in Dublin and is a co-organiser of Dublin Maker, an annual event that brings together makers and inventors to showcase their talents and products.

She is also looking forward to the upcoming Science Hack Day Dublin next month in UCD, which will see hardware and software hackers put their minds and skills together for a furious 36 hours to come up with innovations, solutions and creations.   

Challenge engineering stereotypes

Originally from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, Tobin started out studying experimental physics in UCD and moved to engineering for her PhD, and, as she described at a recent Engineers Ireland careers conference for female school students, she wants to challenge some assumptions about her chosen profession.  

“I would like to see the stereotypes taken away,” she says. “Engineering is not just about wearing hard hats or looking at blueprints or wearing lab coats, it’s a whole mixture of things. It is so diverse, it’s not just civil, mechanical and electrical, and people can move – like me: I started off in physics and now I am in optical engineering and I know I can use my skills to move into other areas, too.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Don’t miss our Innovation Ireland Forum on 24 October in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication