Look at the new bike by San Francisco’s Mission Bicycle Company in the daytime, and it might not warrant so much as a second glance. You have to wait until the sun goes down to see the light.
Thanks to a special retro-reflective coating, the Lumen, as it is called, reflects light in such a way that it appears to glow white. If a light cycle from Tron morphed in to a commuter bike, this is what it would look like. So, not only is it impossibly cool looking, you can’t miss it on the road.
“You don’t have to sacrifice pleasure and style for safety,” says Kai McMurtry, marketing specialist for Mission Bicycle.
The first-of-its-kind bike is one of many products boasting new technology that delivers glow-in-the-dark-like properties: Think plants spliced with genetic materials from jellyfish, smart highways that light up with weather alerts, and biologically friendly paint to cover trees with. Designers, manufacturers and infrastructure companies around the world are utilizing the new technologies, prompted by both the promise of promoting safety without sacrificing style and, in some cases, energy efficiency. And, of course, there is the cool factor of a look that is both retro and futuristic.
“There definitely is a nostalgia [factor],” to glow-in-the-dark products, says Miles Keller, who teaches a course on emerging technologies in industrial design at OCAD University, in Toronto.
See, for instance, the new footwear collection by Palladium and Atmos that feature glow-in-the-dark accents, including glowing green soles and toe caps. “It’s always fun to have the opportunity to show off and have something cool that not everyone has,” says Hommy Diaz, Palladium Boots’ global product line manager. “It’s a conversation piece.”
And the nostalgia factor certainly explains the most talked-about item to hit shelves on Record Store Day this Saturday: a 10-inch vinyl record of Ray Parker Jr.’s song, Ghostbusters. But while Egon would approve, today’s designers are moving far beyond the traditional phosphorescent green, slightly bluish glow that lit up so many 1980s toys and nineties raves.
That light – think of the green stars glued to a child’s bedroom ceiling – contains phosphors, a substance that radiates light once it has been energized. The highways of the future may be painted with something much more advanced – in fact, a small stretch of road in the Netherlands already is. A 500-metre length of highway features glow-in-the-dark road markings thanks to a specially designed paint that is mixed with photo-luminescent powder that was developed in partnership with Heijmans, an infrastructure company.
“It looks like a fairy tale,” according to one Netherlands news report.
The smart highway, as it’s called, was designed by renowned Dutch architect and designer Daan Roosegaarde in 2012. His full vision of the highway features weather markings that will light up to alert drivers to conditions on the road, including giant glowing snowflakes that warn you of potentially slippery roads ahead.
Several European governments have turned off street lights on large swathes of roads and highways to cut costs, making the smart highway one potential solution, Roosegaarde says. “It’s about safety,” he says. “It’s about sustainability.”
The same is true of Roosegaarde’s most daring glow-in-the-dark project, one that he hopes could replace street lights with glowing trees.
“We’re working on a sort of biological paint that we can use to apply to living trees, which does not harm them. It charges in the daytime and makes them glow at night,” he says.
Roosegaarde is not the only one trying to make the glowing plant life from Avatar a reality. Bioglow, a St. Louis, Mo.-based company founded by molecular biologist Alexander Krichevsky, has already created what it says are the world’s first light-producing plants, made from mixing a plant’s genetic material with luciferin, the chemical that makes jellyfish glow. Such plants could one day offer “more sustainable, cleaner and affordable light sources,” says the company’s website.
There are hurdles to jump before these types of products become mainstream. Municipalities will no doubt have reservations about replacing street lights with glowing trees. And smart highways may face cost barriers for governments to create on a large scale. But companies are being drawn to the bright potential of this new technology like moths to a flame.
Ryan Downey, one of the founders of Halo Coatings, the Indianapolis, Ind.-based company that developed the retro-reflective coating technology used on the Lumen, says the market has been steadily growing since the company was founded in 2008.
Three years ago, it developed the technology to bond the retro-reflective coating to a wide array of composite material and rubber, not just metal.
As a result, the number of potential products that can incorporate the technology has now jumped exponentially.
“We’re working with the largest helmet manufacturer, the largest shoe manufacturer, the largest tire manufacturer,” Downey says. (He cannot identify these companies because of non-disclosure agreements. But several new products featuring the coating are set for release this holiday season, he says.)
While the promise of enhanced safety is surely a draw, McMurtry says the fact that the coating is so visually striking, especially on an entire bike, explains much of the Lumen’s appeal.
“People want that uniqueness,” he says. A frame and fork set costs $499 (U.S.), with three versions of fully assembled bikes range from $1,245 to $2,500.
And no, the coating is not meant to replace the usual lights typically found on a bike, McMurtry says. “As beautiful as that retro-reflection is, it is not nearly as reflective as having front and rear lights,” he says. But, he adds, “You can never run out of batteries.”