The Humanity of Optics

Using optics and photonics sustainably, organizations improve the daily lives of people in developing countries.
01 October 2006
Merry Schnell
The next time you flip on a light switch or turn on the tap water, you might think about the millions of people in the world burning kerosene for light or carrying water for miles simply to survive. Using optics and photonics technologies, however, humanitarian organizations such as Green Empowerment and Light Up The World Foundation are providing sustainable solutions for those who do not have access to basic human needs or a way to work out of poverty.

PV Improves Quality of Life
More than 9000 gallons of water a day are flowing to homes in two Nicaraguan villages thanks to the 2866-W solar-powered water pumps installed by Green Empowerment (GE; Portland, OR) in conjunction with the local water authority and a local nongovernmental organization (NGO). This is more than the remote villagers imagined possible three years ago.
"Now the women and children do not have to carry water long distances, community hygiene conditions have improved, and families can plant gardens that are easily irrigated," explains Anna Garwood, GE project manager.
The technology is fairly simple: solar photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight to electricity, which flows to a controller that monitors the water level in the well and storage tank. The tank is located at a higher elevation than the village, allowing gravity to deliver the water to individual homes. The community elects a technician who is fully trained to maintain the system and troubleshoot if anything goes wrong.
For example, in one village when a wire was hit by lightning, the technician monitored the water level and turned the pump on and off manually until the replacement part could be obtained.
In addition, each household is required to pay the equivalent of $2 per month, which is put into a bank account by village treasurers. The money is held for future repairs and replacement parts, ensuring that the programs will be sustained in the long run.
Appropriate Optics Technology
Light Up The World Foundation (LUTW; Calgary, Canada) has demonstrated how the seemingly simple technology of white light-emitting diodes (WLEDs) can change lives since 2000, when visionary founder Dave Irvine-Halliday of the University of Calgary first introduced lamps of bundled WLEDs to Nepalese villagers. Providing durable and affordable lighting to 14,000 homes in 26 countries, LUTW's program also focuses on solar-power generation and energy storage, as well as emphasizing local business generation and credit extension. This conventional method of project delivery meets the twin demands of reaching a very poor segment of the population while simultaneously reinforcing entrepreneurship as one of the most effective and sustainable forms of local development.
One of LUTW's past projects was emergency response to the tsunami refugees in Sri Lanka, where 2000 temporary homes were lit by WLEDs. LUTW was one of the first organizations on the scene in Sri Lanka. However, from the onset they recognized the need to build the project as a long-term solution and provide local businesses incentive to supply, resupply, service, and warranty the systems.
"Sustainability is an important consideration," says Ken Robertson, LUTW founder. "Fifty to 80% of solar home projects in the developing world fail within three years due to a lack of servicing,maintenance, and training for the recipients.The technology is the easy part--it is the project processes, the means of establishing capacity, and the ability to replicate it in-country that is truly demanding. The job is not easy, but we view economic development and the continued operations of our equipment far into the future as being absolutely essential."
Thus, through economic development, local business helps to sustain the work that LUTW and other partners have initiated in Sri Lanka.
Making Good Better
While PV and LED technologies are leaps and bounds ahead of most technologies used in remote villages, there is room for improvement. "Any improvements in efficiency and cost of the solar equipment would facilitate the broader application of this technology," Garwood says.
Robertson agrees. "High-quality and low-cost solar panels would greatly expand our capacity to deliver more systems. If supply-chain partners would reduce the price further, we could make our system more sophisticated and include many other features."
Battery technology is also a weak point. "Rechargeable batteries are expensive and hard to procure in remote areas. Sealed lead-acid batteries are less expensive and available, but bulky. Improvements in battery technology would be a real plus," Robertson says. "Supercapacitors are viable but expensive, and their performance curve needs improvement."
Advancing these technologies and finding other appropriate solutions to fill basic human needs will assist more developing countries to help themselves out of illiteracy, disease, and ultimately out of poverty while sustaining the local environment. Indispensable to these goals are the enabling technologies of optics and photonics.

Volunteer Opportunities Abound
There are many ways engineers can assist in humanitarian efforts using optics, even beyond the two organizations featured in the main article. Here are two others worth noting.
Solar Energy International
After successfully completing SEI workshops, alumni can volunteer in an international project to provide rural communities with renewable energy, build sustainable housing, and train local users and technicians.
Himalayan Light Foundation
Volunteers can visit some of the most remote and majestic sites in the world, live with indigenous communities, and promote environmental and social justice by sponsoring the installation of a solar energy system.

Learn More
Find out more about Green Empowerment and Light Up the World by contacting the organizations.
Green Empowerment
Phone: +1-503-284-5774
Fax: +1-503-460-0450
Light Up The World Foundation
Phone: +1-403-210-9517
Fax: +1-403-282-6855

Merry Schnell, SPIE Senior Staff Editor

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