Published on March 4th, 2015 | by Jake Richardson11
Solar-Powered Portable Light Illuminates Disaster Areas
March 4th, 2015 by Jake Richardson
LuminAID makes a small LED light and battery pack that is re-charged with solar power. It was designed by two students from Columbia University to help people in disaster zones that had no functioning lights. Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork created the product and founded an organization called LuminAID to distribute and market it. Recently, they answered some questions for Cleantechnica.
1. How did you get the idea to create a portable light with a renewable energy source?
Andrea and I were in graduate school for architecture at Columbia University in 2010, and our semester started right after the Haiti Earthquake. Over a million people were homeless after the earthquake, and living in informal settlements. After dusk, these settlements were in complete darkness, and it was extremely unsafe. There was a real need for a lighting product that could be easily shipped and distributed. A rechargeable product made a lot of sense because there was no need for replacement batteries, and solar had the potential to be low-cost, lightweight, as well as high performing in an area like Haiti, where it could be quickly recharged.
2. Why is it inflatable?
We zeroed in on the idea of combining solar and inflatable fairly quickly because it had the potential to be waterproof, lightweight, and create a lantern around the LED. Inflating the product diffuses the LED light because LEDs produce a lot of glare. When we developed this idea of combing solar with inflatable, we filed utility patents in 2010 for this idea while we were students at Columbia.
3. What LED type did you choose and why?
We tested many different LED types and configurations. Our goal was to balance a long run time with brightness. Our PackLite 16 product uses two multi-chip LEDs that provide over 45 lumens, and last for over 16 hours on the LOW setting. This is very high-performing compared to other products on the market.
4. How long does it take to charge the battery with the solar technology?
It takes 7 hours of direct sunlight to recharge the li-ion battery. We use a monocrystalline, high-efficiency solar panel.
5. How did you build a prototype?
When we were graduate students, we ordered a handheld heat sealer off of Amazon, many different types of solar panels, rechargeable batteries, LEDs, and valves. We spend about 1.5 years prototyping different configurations and assemblies. We have images of prototypes two weeks after we started, and it looks very similar to our current product. The overall design has not significantly changed; however, we have conducted a lot of R&D on the right type of plastic to use, the right solar panel, right LED, etc.
6. How are your lights manufactured and where?
We do all of our design and engineering in the US, and manufacture our products in Asia.
7. How long did it take to go from prototype to finished product and then to launch it publicly?
We started prototyping in January 2010, and still have a lot of our early prototypes that we made in those first few weeks. For the first few hundred, we ordered inflatables from a factory, and shipped them to New York where we handmade all the circuits and sealed them within the inflatables. In March 2011, Andrea and I happened to be in Japan during the Tohoku Earthquake on a class trip, and had our handmade prototype to use during the blackouts. When we graduated in 2011, we field-tested around 100 units in India. We launched a crowdfunding campaign 6 months after graduating in November 2011 to fund our first production run. We shipped those units to customers in January/February 2012, and have been gradually scaling production since that time.
8. How many of your lights have been produced and distributed so far?
We have produced over 200,000 units.
9. Have you had other product ideas since then, and are you expanding your product line, or will you stay focused on what you have?
We have a few new products that we just launched called the Pack Line. The line includes the PackLite 16 (an updated version of our original product), the PackLite 12, and the PackLite Spectra. The 12 and Spectra are inflatable cubes and they twist to close.
They have an adjustable strap to make them easy to charge on the go and convenient to hang inside a tent. The 16 is available now, and the 12 and Spectra are available for pre-order on our website, luminaid.com. Our IP covers the combination of the solar, LED, and inflatable (all different shapes and sizes), so we were excited to expand on that technology with these new products.
10. What are your plans for the future?
Our goal is first and foremost to make lighting an essential part of emergency aid, and continuing to expand the list of emergency aid organizations we work with. We are looking forward to building the LuminAID brand by developing other well-designed portable energy products. We see a lot of potential for well-designed, smart, solar products for emergencies and outdoor use.