In 1997, at a colleague’s invitation, electrical engineer Dave Irvine-Halliday spent his sabbatical leave from Canada’s University of Calgary in Nepal, helping the University of Tribhuvan in Kathmandu launch its electrical engineering degree.
With time to spare, the Scottish-born Canadian fulfilled his ambition to trek the Himalayas’ famous Annapurna Circuit. Near a schoolhouse in a small Nepalese village, a sign entreated passing foreigners to stop and teach local children. Peering into the unlit classroom, Irvine-Halliday thought : "Gosh, it’s dark in there!" Then, inexplicably: "I wonder if I can help them?" The question has already changed his life, and is likely to transform millions more lives.
Irvine-Halliday has been selected as a 2002 Rolex Laureate for his determination and the originality evident in his Light Up The World Foundation. Using modern technology’s most efficient and environmentally benign light source, he is bringing light to dark households, schools and temples in some of the world’s poorest, most remote villages.
Flash of Insight
When he left Nepal in 1997, Irvine-Halliday wondered how he could light houses in villages remote from power networks. Only 200,000 of Nepal’s 3.4 million households have a reliable power supply. With household incomes averaging US$200 a year, low cost and reliability would be paramount. Therefore, he set out to devise a lighting system that could be installed "on a pico budget, and use pico energy". (In mathematics, the Latin prefix pico means a trillionth.)
Once he got back to the University of Calgary, where he works in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Irvine-Halliday had a flash of insight. Why light an entire home, when light was required only in certain areas?
As a specialist in photonics, the use of light for communication and computing, he knew much about light, but little about illumination. “That was probably an advantage,” says Irvine-Halliday – with no preconceptions as to what constituted adequate lighting, he found a solution no professional illumination engineer would have considered.
Ordinary tungsten-filament bulbs squander energy as heat, and rapidly burn out. Fluorescent tubes are cooler and more efficient, but cost and reliability remain problematic. Like many in the photonics community, Irvine-Halliday saw solid-state lighting as the future.
The Answer: LEDs
Tiny, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) fabricated from layers of silicon and seeded with atoms of phosphorus, or germanium, arsenic and other rare earth elements, exploit the quirky laws of quantum physics to transform electrons directly into photons of light, without heat. A cheap plastic reflector focuses the light into a conical beam that can be narrow and very bright, or wide and diffuse.
Technical advances have greatly improved the quality and reliability of LEDs since they were invented in the 1960s, making them much brighter and more efficient. The late 1990s brought high-brightness LEDs that could shine continuously for 100,000 hours, or 30 to 40 years in normal service. However, because they emitted light only at pure wavelengths or colours — blues, greens, yellows, oranges or reds — they were unsuitable for domestic lighting. In 1997, Irvine-Halliday needed something that did not yet exist: a high-brightness LED that emitted at all visible wavelengths to produce white light.
In 1998, after a fruitless year trying to develop a white LED, he was browsing the internet when he discovered that a Japanese company, Nichia, had solved the problem by adding a phosphorus-doped layer to its blue LED. It changed some of the blue photons to amber, and the synergy yielded white light.
In pitch-darkness in his Calgary University photonics laboratory, Irvine-Halliday and his technician John Shelley switched on one of Nichia’s 0.1 watt, white LEDs. The moment is seared into Irvine-Halliday’s memory. "Good God, John!" he exclaimed. "A child could read by the light of a single diode!"
Irvine-Halliday began developing a multi-diode lamp to light homes in Nepal, and simple generators to power it. Thus was born his Light Up the World Foundation. In 1999 he, wife Jenny and son Gregor installed demonstration systems in several Nepalese villages. Returning to Nepal in 2000, he was introduced to Australian engineer Stewart Craine, who shared his interest in using new technology to help villages leap directly from the past into the future.
Craine had been working with Australian Volunteers International installing micro-hydroelectric turbines and fluorescent lighting in local villages. He was struck by Irvine-Halliday’s drive and enthusiasm, and impressed by the bright LED lamps and the simple pedal generator and small wind turbine he had built to power them. Craine needed little persuasion to join Light Up The World as an executive.
By the end of 2001, Irvine-Halliday’s rechargeable, battery-powered, white LED cluster lamps were illuminating more than 700 homes, schools and other community buildings in remote villages in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.
Today’s high-brilliance, white LED lamps can light a Nepalese village of 60 households consuming the same amount of energy as a single 100 watt light bulb in a Canadian home.
Rise in Living Standards
With light to read and cook by comes the promise of a better life. In poorer countries, as women in particular become educated, birth rates decline and household incomes rise. After white LED lamps were installed in his small house in the Sri Lankan village of Pukunutenna in 2001, a father of five said: "This is the first time in the lives of my children that they have been able to read at night."
Irvine-Halliday has reversed technology’s arrow. In 2000, four small Nepalese villages — Thulo Pokhara, Raje Danda, Thalpa and Norung — began using an advanced, solid-state lighting technology that is not yet available to wealthier Western households. Rather than pushing newfangled technology and risk resistance, Irvine-Halliday is scattering demonstration villages across Nepal to encourage neighbours to see the light.
The comment of an envious Nepalese visitor to the first village with LED lamps affirmed the strategy’s success. "I heard a foreigner has come and made Thulo Pokhara heaven!"
Nepal’s simple stone and wood houses have no chimneys. At night, candles and kerosene lamps add to the smoke from simple open-hearth stoves, irritating lungs and eyes, and blackening ceilings and walls. Irvine-Halliday is tackling this problem by requiring households to instal smokeless clay stoves, made locally at a cost of US$3, before their lights are installed.
Sustainable Business Model
The Rolex Laureate sees Light Up The World more as facilitator than a supplier of technology. He personally founded and financed a Kathmandu-based manufacturing company, Pico Power Nepal, then gave it to a local entrepreneur. Pico Power Nepal receives diodes at a reduced cost from Light Up The World. In turn, the Nepalese company develops lighting systems locally and sells them at affordable prices to the rural villagers. In this way, Light Up The World is not only donating light to the very poorest, but is also promoting job creation and assuring long-term viability for the project.
A new deal with LumiLeds, jointly owned by Philips Lighting and Agilent Technologies, allows Light Up The World to buy white LEDs cheaply, while out-of-specification LEDs, still perfect for lighting homes in the developing world, are free. The average "one-time" cost of equipping a home with lighting is set to fall below US$40.
Lighting up to four million homes with 25-watt incandescent bulbs would require a 100-megawatt power station; with eight-watt compact fluorescent bulbs, 32 megawatts would be needed. But two-watt white LEDs could light Nepal with just eight megawatts. "Any power station not built is a good power station," says Irvine-Halliday.
Pico Power Nepal also makes torches, an indispensable household item in the unlit villages of Nepal and other developing nations. Three D-cell batteries will power a conventional torch for only three hours, or two weeks of normal service. Pico Power’s new white LED torch extends battery life tenfold.
More than 300 million batteries are discarded in Nepal every year, contaminating soil and waterways with mercury and other toxic materials. White LED torches could cut that number to 30 million and rechargeable batteries would reduce discards to a few hundred thousand.
Nepalese households spend half their average US$200 annual income on batteries and scarce kerosene. Therefore, white LED torches offer substantial economic as well as environmental benefits.
Irvine-Halliday exhausted personal savings to fund Light Up The World’s first two years. Publicity has brought a steady trickle of small, individual donations, but major corporate sponsorship has remained elusive.
Some of Irvine-Halliday’s Rolex Award funds will help consolidate Light Up The World’s organizational structure so it can attract more sponsors. And he wants to help other developing nations now interested in imitating his project. His goal is to see a million homes in developing nations using white LED lighting.
Stewart Craine declares that Irvine-Halliday’s enthusiasm for the project springs from a deeply held commitment to global equal opportunity. His egalitarianism even extends to his double surname — Irvine is his wife Jenny’s maiden name.
Irvine-Halliday attributes his altruism to his father’s advice: "You don’t have to like everybody in the world, but you have to respect them."
"Being Scottish by birth," says Irvine-Halliday, "you grow up with a wee bit of an inferiority complex about the way you speak English. But you come to realise it’s not how you speak, but what you say." That Irvine-Halliday is a person of rare generosity, vision and drive is proved not only by his words, but also by his deeds.
Published in 2002