Seeing Things in a New Light

Research suggests a spectrum of non-visible light can play a key role in creating healthier, more productive work environments.

In the wake of groundbreaking research on lighting, it’s not hard to imagine an office where workers don’t experience after-lunch food coma and they are consistently in their most wakeful, productive states.

The gamechanger came along in recent years when medical researchers discovered a new receptor in the optic nerve—one that actually registers the non-visible cyan light that is responsible for metering the production of melatonin. Additional research has since supported these findings. A natural hormone produced by the pineal gland, melatonin is thought to play a key role in regulating our circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, which is why it is a popular sleep aid supplement.

The discovery of the receptor opened the door to new ways of using light to affect the work environment and keep employees more alert in the course of the workday. Prior to the research, it was thought that tuning the color of visible light from blue to amber through the course of the day would positively impact productivity. But that thinking is outdated, given the new data.

The research is prompting designers to rethink lighting strategies. For example, the cost/benefit of tunable light systems is much harder to justify. The systems don’t necessarily provide the non-visible cyan light that is required to regulate circadian rhythms. In terms of cost, not only do the systems require that you pay for two LED boards of different color temperatures, they also necessitate a very complex—and expensive—lighting control system. More importantly, by mixing two color boards the system does not effectively target non-visible cyan light. Focusing on non-visible cyan light is considered a much more effective way to approach the lighting design, especially in a working environment.

Comparing the Color Temperature Spectrum

Non-visible cyan light (peaking at a wavelength of 480nm) has been shown to regulate the human circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle. The graphs below show the spectral distribution of light produced by Bios as compared to the various color temperature distributions within a traditional Tunable White system. As shown below, Tunable White systems do not effectively target the cyan wavelength, while new technologies like Bios explicitly target the wavelength required to trigger the circadian rhythm.


Research has already shown the importance lighting plays in productivity. The right lighting can keep employees alert and focused and help them feel more comfortable and happier in their workplace.

In many ways, the research on non-visible cyan light is still in its infancy. NASA has been studying the effect of non-visible cyan light on astronauts on the International Space Station. In the commercial sector, a company called Bios, founded by former NASA scientists and engineers, has been leading the research, and their study of the potential of non-visible cyan light to impact productivity in office, educational, healthcare and first responder settings is really exciting. The healthcare industry has been particularly interested in the concept, with so many doctors and nurses battling their natural circadian rhythms on late-night shifts.

As we progress, researchers are investigating different concepts, such as layering light, including non-visible cyan, to adjust energy levels. Using non-visible cyan in targeted areas such as lobbies and elevators could boost the overall mood of an office. One current study is looking into the viability of outfitting certain areas of airports with non-visible cyan light as a way to ward off jetlag for passengers and pilots.

At LPA, we’ve been conducting our own research, looking at the best ways to integrate non-visible cyan into offices. During the design process for LPA’s new Irvine headquarters office, we took two conference rooms in our old office and converted the lighting to study the impact of the new spectrum of LED lights available. We found distinct differences in systems, which helped us provide lighting that best-suited different work zones. In our research we found that participants responded well to vibrant color rendition and fixtures that emulate the natural daylight color spectrum. The natural daylight visible color spectrum spans from violet to red which includes the non-visible cyan wavelength.

For office owners and managers, these new developments raise many questions about the long-term role of new lighting technology in the office environment. With budgets tight, it can be difficult to find the most cost-effective lighting strategies. But there is data and research available to back investing in these new non-visible cyan lighting technologies in strategic areas as a way to boost productivity and employee comfort.

Rebecca Ceballos is a LPA lighting designer based in Irvine, California.