A Canadian electrical engineering professor turns on the lights for impoverished people around the world.
A nurse in Ghana steps out of her home one morning to find village children asleep under a newly erected lamppost, their schoolbooks scattered around them. Thanks to a Calgary-based foundation called Light Up the World, it was the first time they had been able to read at night.
Over 10 years, the foundation has brought low-cost, reliable lighting to 20,000 homes, schools and health units in more than 40 countries. In 2002, its founder, Dave Irvine-Halliday, now 66, received the US$100,000 Rolex Award for his determination to bring affordable electrical illumination to the developing world, where two billion people have none. He promptly spent the money on projects in Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. Until then, he and his wife, Jenny, had been digging deeply into their own pockets.
It all began in 1997, Irvine-Halliday tells Jayne MacAulay. The Scottish-born electrical engineering professor, on sabbatical leave from the University of Calgary, had been asked to help set up the electrical engineering degree program at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. That done, he went mountain trekking and stumbled on a new mission in life.
I didn’t go to Nepal with any idea of lighting up the world. It never occurred to me. I had time to spare, so I decided to do the Annapurna Circuit. It’s about 200 miles through Thorung La, a pass that’s about 17,000 feet above sea level. I just wanted to take photographs and stay at the tea houses.
I was being introduced to my porter’s relatives. There was one old couple, swathed in many layers of clothing. The only time I actually saw their faces was when this tiny fire would settle, and you’d get a spark and a little bit of light. After that, it was dark. That may have planted a seed in my head.
But this was the instant my life changed: I was wandering down this hillside, enjoying Himalayan vistas, and I heard these kids singing. It was a wee village with a one-room school, but I popped my head into its window and then I thought, “How can they read in this darkness?”
Was there anything I could do to help? Incandescent is no good. It’s the simplest kind of lighting system, but you get a lot of heat and very little light. Fluorescent is a lot more efficient but a bit fragile. Then I thought, “Wait a minute! I’m an expert in LEDs (light-emitting diodes) for fibre-optic communication.” LEDs in fibre optics use a different wavelength, invisible to the human eye, but LEDs live an incredible length of time — decades.
Everybody knows televisions and monitors are made up of red, green and blue dots. You vary the ratio of intensity and can get any colour under the rainbow. So I thought, “I’ll get hold of some different colours of LEDs, vary the brightness, put them close together and mix the light, and see if I can get whitish light.” About nine months after I got back to Calgary, I came to the conclusion that even though I’d made white light with these LEDs, the lighting was pathetic.
Then I found that Nichia, a Japanese company, had invented a white LED, a diode, for illumination — for actually being able to see to do stuff. I explained that I had this project in mind for the developing world, and they sent me a couple of dozen samples.
I’ll never forget the day we got them. My technician at the University of Calgary, John Shelley, and I went down to the lab. The system is simplicity itself: a power supply (a battery that is recharged by solar panels), a wire, your LED and then back to the power supply. First, we sat for 20 minutes in the dark and then we switched them on. If the moment of conception was in Nepal, the “eureka” moment was in my lab. We’d set up a paper with some type on it. An old fart like me (I was 56 then) could see every single character perfectly well. I looked at John and said, “Good God, John! A child could read by the light of a single diode.”
I didn’t intend to go back to Nepal until 2000, but these Nichia diodes totally changed the whole thing. I told my wife, “Jenny, I’m going back in 1999. I don’t care what I have to do — borrow money from the bank or whatever.” And she said, “I’m coming, too.”
We travelled for about three months and visited many villages. We’d sit there with a kerosene wick lamp, about the same light as a birthday candle, and then we’d blow it out. We’d sit in the dark and talk to them via translators about this new light and its advantages, and then we’d switch it on.