More than 1.4 billion people around the world have no access to electricity. When the sun goes down, darkness comes up. Almost all of these people live in Africa and India. Kerosene generators are one solution, but they pollute the environment and are often too expensive for the millions of people living poverty. Those who rely on it go deeper into poverty just trying to read and work.
One innovation making its way into these regions is the solar-powered light bulb. Many of the newest models are comprised of a small solar panel, rechargeable batteries and an LED bulb, which requires very little energy to work.
Evan Mills, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory hopes that solar light bulbs do for light-poor communities what mobile phones has already done for communities lacking a wired infrastructure. Mill thinks that solar light could leapfrog wealthy countries in acquiring advanced wireless LEDs and become ubiquitous. Beyond improving the environment, Mills said, "it will be a boon to literacy, safety for women and productivity of businesses who today are stuck with flame-based light."
Here is just a sampling of designs bringing solar-powered light to dark corners of the world.
The India-based company Greenlight Planet makes solar-powered lanterns called Sun King that are built to provide 16 hours of light from one day’s charge. Bright LEDs come mounted inside a waterproof orange lamp head incorporated into a supporting stand. When the Sun King lamps were rolled out in a rural Indian village several hours outside Mumbai, one elderly resident told the Wall Street Journal she was able to stop using a rusty kerosene lamp that made her cough.
The Denver-based solar light bulb company Nokero, short for “No Kerosene,” was started by mechanical engineer Steve Katsaros in 2010. Nokero’s solar light bulbs clearly resemble traditional light bulbs. Each bulb contains a rechargeable AA battery, LEDs under a curved housing, a small solar panel, and a hook to suspend it. Through international collaboration with NGOs, the company’s lights have been dispatched to areas worldwide. After a 2011 earthquake in Turkey, the bulbs provided light for millions without power.
AFP via PhysOrg
Several years ago the young Kenyan engineer Evans Wadongo made it his mission to help bring Africans out of poverty. Kerosene lamps had damaged his vision growing up so he set to work designing a solar lamp he called Mwangabora, Swahili for “good light.” CNN named Wadongo one of the top 10 heroes for 2010 and he currently heads up the NGO Sustainable Development For All that works to bring lasting solutions to problems facing African families, including solar light.
D.light via Mercy Corps
The for-profit social enterprise D.light was cofounded by Stanford Design School classmates Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun. Their goal to serve households lacking electricity was inspired by Goldman’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, where a kerosene lamp burned his neighbor’s son.
D.light makes several bright orange solar lights that include a circular, tilting LED mounted on a simple metal stand, a wide bottle-shaped light with a multi-setting handle, and a dual-purpose light and phone charger with a strap attachment and rounded handle.
Belgian designer Alain Gilles developed the Nomad portable solar lamp system for O’Sun that could both be used in place of kerosene and work as a camping or outdoor lamp. The light was presented earlier last year at Milan Design Week, where the simple lantern gained attention for its shock resistance, hook attachment for suspension and mobile phone charger. The waterproof lantern has three settings, allowing it to get between six and 35 hours depending on the mode following a six-hour charge. If the sun fails, Nomad can be recharged in a car or wall outlet.
LuminAID cofounders Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta met in graduate school, where they were studying design and architecture. After experiencing the 2011 earthquake in Japan firsthand on a trip, they developed a portable, inflatable and water-resistant light that only weighs three ounces and packs down so that 50 could be shipped in the same box that only holds eight regular flashlights. A five-hour charge gives LuminAID between about six and eight hours of diffused LED light, and has two brightness settings.
Former Marine and American Diplomatic Corps member Mark Bent started the company SunNight Solar in 2006 to produce a durable flashlight-shaped solar light called BoGo. Bent uses rechargeable batteries that run for between 750 and 1,000 individual nights with between six and eight hours of usage with LEDs built to last an average of 100,000 hours.
BoGo lights have been donated through nonprofits to communities across the world, including Africa and India. Last year when Hurricane Sandy caught Bent on the road and the hotel where he was staying lost power, he distributed lights to guests.
The New York City-based company Mpowerd, led by entrepreneur Jacques-Philippe Piverger, recently came out with its own version of an inflatable solar lantern known as Luci. Piverger initially got help from the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to create the light. Each four-ounce cylindrical lantern produces six to 12 hours of light after six hours charge time. Mpowerd calls its solar-powered light a combination task light, flashlight, and diffused lantern.
Aside from the solar cars that participate in Australia's Solar Challenge race, society hasn't seen much in the way of cars powered by the sun.
But now Ford is exploring solar charging with its concept car, the C-Max Solar Energi, which uses solar power to directly charge the plug-in hybrid's battery pack.
If you're hoping this car charges on the go, you'll be disappointed; it's still designed to charge when parked up.
But the concept is a unique one. Rather than plugging in your C-Max Energi each time you stop, you park below a special solar concentrator with Fresnel circular lenses. This magnifies the sun's rays onto the roof of the car, which is covered by solar panels.
The normal sunlight is boosted by a factor of eight, allowing the relatively small roof-mounted solar array of SunPower cells to gather enough light during a day's charging for a full battery top-up, or 21 miles of EPA-rated electric range.
It frees the car entirely from the need to charge via the electricity grid, though the Solar Energi retains its charge port so once you get home you can still plug it in and benefit from your home's solar panels. If you don't already have solar panels and charge via the grid, using the solar roof system could cut your grid charging by as much as 75 percent.
A vital component in making best use of the sun's energy is ensuring that the solar concentrator focuses as much light as possible onto the panels as the sun moves across the sky. In order to do this, the car is programmed to move autonomously beneath the collector, ensuring it remains below the focus of the light. MORE: Diagram detailing how Ford's Solar Energi system works
Such a system doesn't seem entirely problem-free.
For a start, you're replacing the complexity of an infrastructure-based solar array and charging system with a low-tech infrastructure, high-tech automobile complexity. Requiring the car to move within its (presumably fairly large) parking space seems like undue complication.
Then there's the spaces themselves, which need to be large enough to occupy a car moving along their length. And you still need to erect these solar collectors above relevant spaces, which isn't entirely infrastructure-free.
Also, a day's worth of solar charging for only 21 miles range doesn't strike us as particularly efficient; you'd still be better off using a conventional charging cable hooked up to a solar-generated electricity supply.
On the plus side, it could be an amusing answer to the problem of "ICEing" -- that of combustion-engined vehicles parking in electric car spots.
Why? Well as deterrents go, focusing eight times the solar energy onto the roof of a regular car may not be great for its health, nor its appearance. We've already seen the damage focused solar energy can do to cars -- neither this Toyota Prius nor this Jaguar XJ luxury sedan got away lightly (pun not intended) after their own run-ins with our nearest star.
Our take? It's a neat system and great to see Ford thinking outside the box.
But in reality, the Solar Energi concept seems to be over-complicating the much simpler practice of using infrastructure-based solar cells to power regular electric car charging.
Ford will display its C-Max Solar Energi concept at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, beginning January 6.
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