A Bright Idea: Solar-Powered Lighting Gets Portable0

Ernest Beck | Thu Feb 9 2012

In 2010, Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta were graduate architecture students at New York’s Columbia University when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti. In a studio class focusing on design and disaster relief, the two students considered the daunting problems facing earthquake victims and aid agencies, from devising temporary shelter to providing food, water, and medical aid.

But it was the electrical challenges that really made them think.

“Haiti had a bad electricity supply before the disaster and now it was completely wiped out,” Stork recalls. “There was no vision about how it could be restructured or rebuilt.” Stork and Sreshta focused their attention on lighting and inflatable structures to make packing and shipping easier and cheaper.

At first, they considered structures like streetlights. Then the idea emerged for a smaller, more flexible solar-powered device equipped with LEDs. “This could bring a lot of comfort to people,” Stork thought after seeing pictures of earthquake victims huddled around candles in makeshift tents.

Class project

The goal was to keep the design as simple and low cost as possible. They experimented with different types of plastic sheathing, heat seals, and micro-sized solar panel components, which are readily available and used in consumer products like garden lights. Still, questions abounded as they wrestled with early prototypes: how do you make a light as bright and efficient as possible, all while maintaining a low weight? What kind of battery would have a high energy density?

A cell-phone sized battery can be recharged 800 times, which means it could last two to three years if used every day.

The result is the soft, pillow-like LuminAid light which contains flexible photovoltaic film sandwiched between two layers of plastic, protecting it from damage and making it waterproof (when inflated, it can even float).

Embedded solar panels provide five hours of light and recharge in six hours; a cell-phone sized battery can be recharged 800 times, which means it could last two to three years if used every day. Stork says she is aiming for a price between $7 and $10.

Funding hurdles

After designing the light, Stork and her colleague sought funds to start manufacturing and distribution. One route was through indiegogo, a global funding website that helps crowdsource fundraising by offering unique perks or tax deductions. So far the campaign has raised over $50,000 with a deal enabling contributors to receive one LuminAid light with a second given away to an aid agency.

A nonprofit called Solar Sister, which empowers women entrepreneurs in African nations to sell solar products, is also interested in LuminAid. “It is a beautiful design with great bright light,” explains Katherine Lucey, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Solar Sister. “Just put it outside in the daytime, let it juice up, and bring it in at night and you can say, ‘I have light.’ It’s much less about the technology and more about the utility.”

Solar power for tough conditions

Mariana Amatullo, Vice President of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, praises LuminAid for being light, portable, and water-resistant. “This flexibility might be of great appeal for emergency relief agencies looking at ease of logistics when responding to natural disasters,” she says. Key questions to be explored, she suggests, are the product’s durability with wear and tear and in harsh conditions.

With portable energy and portable light, design can go a long way to make a product useful.

One great advantage is that LuminAid can replace dangerous kerosene, which is widely used for lighting in developing countries and poses serious health and environmental safety issues. Solar power has been considered a potential energy source in electricity-poor nations, but has been difficult and unwieldy to implement. “You can’t put a solar panel on a thatched roof house, or install a switch in a mud and dung wall,” Lucey says.

The solar-power concept behind LuminAid is similar to d.light, a California company backed by social enterprise funds that produces and sells solar-powered lights and lanterns in developing countries to “enable households without reliable electricity to attain the same quality of life as those with electricity,” according to its website.

Multiple markets

While testing is continuing on LuminAid, Stork is exploring other markets like recreational camping—as well as licensing and partnerships—to expand LuminAid’s reach from disaster relief to communities without electricity to anyone who needs a portable solar-powered light. Her goal is to maintain the social entrepreneurship model so that LuminAid reaches those in desperate need of electricity, while also ensuring funding and financing through retail and commercial distribution.

“We have always believed that you can design one product really well for multiple markets,” Storks says. “With portable energy and portable light, design can go a long way to make a product useful,” she adds. “LuminAid has the potential to make a big difference.”