A cheap and effective light made from empty bottles is powering efforts in Bangladesh to cope with electricity shortages and protect the environment.
“Bottle lights” are being pioneered in the country by a Dhaka-based research organisation and consultancy as a way to provide an essential utility in poor areas while cutting carbon emissions.
“During power outages, our classrooms became so dark that our teachers often had to take us out into the corridor where we read under a bit of sunlight that managed to creep in,” said Noor Hussain, 13, a student at the Non-Local Surovi School.
But last November, CHANGE installed the botol bati (“bottle lights”) in classrooms at the school in Geneva Camp in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur area.
“We can now read and write under the solar-powered lights during the day, despite power outages or bad weather,” said Hussain.
‘Litre of light’
The bottle light initiative was inspired by Brazilian Alfredo Moser’s invention, the so-called “Litre of Light”, which has been made popular through video clips on social media.
The Brazilian innovator teamed up with MIT students to come up with a way to refract sunlight in glass bottles containing water and chlorine that are embedded in the roofs of buildings to produce at least 55 watts of light in the rooms below.
The device is seen as being of particular use in poorer households and schools in the densely populated areas of Dhaka that are plagued by power cuts, especially during the summer season, when they can be plunged into darkness for up to four hours.
Demand for power often exceeds supply – last year, for example, demand hit 8,000mw during the summer while the maximum power generated during peak hours stood at 6,000mw.
Cramped areas like the Geneva Camp – where more than 25,000 people live in less than one square kilometre in thousands of small, makeshift houses – can be badly affected by outages.
“At the camp, we have to rely on electric lights even during the day as sunlight can hardly pass through the small walls and windows,” said Mohammad Ali, Hussain’s teacher.
M Shoukot Ali, the principal of Non-Local Surovi School, has already noticed the benefits from the bottle bulbs.
“We gave the green signal to the idea and pretty soon 22 bottle lights were installed in the rooms of the school,” Ali said.
“We are a small school where we try to subsidize the education of our students, who come from poverty-stricken families in Geneva camp. Hence, our management always tries to cut costs in every way we can.”
He continued, “The lights are helping largely by saving electricity costs especially during the day when the classes are going on. Ever since the lights were installed, we have managed to cut down the average monthly electricity bill by three-fourths.”
Sajid Iqbal, who founded CHANGE in 2013, was inspired by Moser’s innovation and explained that the lights bulbs are made of empty plastic bottles containing chlorine and clean water, to which his team, following tests in Geneva Camp, added silicon glue and screws.
“When sunlight enters the bottle, it is refracted by the contents in the plastic bottle, directing the light into the interior of the house,” he said.
The cost of installation along with raw materials is now Tk 300 ($4) per light and the bottle bulbs require little maintenance.
An environmental science student, Iqbal received the support of Philippines-based MyShelter Foundation, the organisation that is promoting the Litre of Light initiative globally.
“The initiative attracted the interest of GIZ Bangladesh, the German development cooperation agency, under which the first ever youth-involved project installed Litres of Light in 250 houses in the Baoniabadh slum from April to August of 2013,” he said.
According to CHANGE, more than 400 bottle lights have now been installed in houses in Muslim Camp, Baoniabadh and Kuril in Dhaka, saving about 15.8mw of electricity per month.
“Installation in 400 households is also reducing around 9.7 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions,” added Iqbal.
Illac Angelo Diaz, executive director of MyShelter, said that CHANGE’s work disseminating this open source technology in Bangladesh could provide a “tipping point” that will help the initiative take hold in other countries.
“There are 15 countries currently working together and independently to expand the reach of Litre of Light,” Diaz said.
“Like Bangladesh, other countries such as Colombia, Kenya, and Egypt have come up with their local versions of the technology.”
Solar power for night-time
However, bottle lights work only during the day and new modifications of the Litre of Light technology are being developed in Bangladesh to extend their use to night-time.
“We are currently researching evening solar lights that can be more beneficial to poor households,” said Iqbal.
A pipe inside the plastic bottle is connected to a solar panel and a battery. The solar panel charges the battery throughout the day, which in turn powers the light at night.
CHANGE is also researching how the technology can be used in villages that do not yet have electricity, and Iqbal is seeking the help of the Bangladeshi government and development agencies to spread the technology.
“Before taking these innovations to more households in the city and rural areas, it is imperative that we build the capacity of local representatives in these areas,” he added. “Otherwise the efforts behind the innovation and its dissipation will be in vain.”
Tapas Kumar Roy, the chairman of the country’s Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) said that his department is yet to officially test the bulbs.
“We look forward to any correspondence from the organisation. If the procedure is sustainable, it will be effective in tackling the power crisis,” he said.
But the next generation of young people who are already benefiting from this illuminating innovation are in no doubt that it has the potential to transform lives.
“Bottle lights need to be taken out to remote villages and communities where electricity is still scarce,” said Hussain. “This can truly be a tool for positive change.”
– By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury | Al Jazeera