Final Report: Solar-Powered LED Lanterns for the Replacement of Oil Lamps in the Developing World

EPA Grant Number: SU833155
Title: Solar-Powered LED Lanterns for the Replacement of Oil Lamps in the Developing World
Investigators: Walsh, T. Patrick , Barot, Suhail , Kumar, Rahul , Kumar, Shantanu , Kumar, Vikash , Lilly, Brian , Mahto, Tarkeshwar , Majure, Lydia , Mishra, Dhanada , Parikh, Harshil , Singer, Andrew , Singh, Amit , Somers, Maren , Thompson, William , Weissman, Jon
Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , Jagannath Institute for Technology and Management
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: May 1, 2007 through April 30, 2008
Project Amount: $10,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2006) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Energy , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


Two billion people in the developing world lack electricity1 and must use oil lamps for home lighting. Oil lamps are expensive, inefficient, unhealthy, and dangerous for the impoverished users. For the rest of the world, the lamps are a significant consumer of limited fuel supplies, and a major greenhouse gas emitter: They burn an estimated 470 million barrels of oil per year,2 releasing roughly 400 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent gases into the atmosphere annually. But until recently, poor rural villagers, who often earn only $1.50 per day or less, had no modern alternative to the ubiquitous oil lamp. Over the past five years, low-power, white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have dropped in cost and grown in efficiency.

Our phase-one research paired these LEDs with a small solar panel and battery, to create an economical solar-powered LED lantern. Users charge the lantern battery during the day via a very small solar panel which sits on the roof. Then at night, they turn on the LEDs for 5-6 hours of light. This technology is not an altogether new idea, but so far it had not been demonstrated to work in an economically sustainable way.

Our first goal was to design a lantern which could be sold off-the shelf for $20, a price deemed appropriate after prior onsite market research in Orissa, India. Extensive engineering research was conducted by the student team, which included sourcing nearly all lantern components from China, and taking a careful look at cost/benefit analysis with respect to the lifestyle and needs of the targeted consumer. Our second goal was to prototype the resulting design in India, to directly judge the reaction of poor, potentially risk-averse consumers to this new technology. Onsite prototyping and face-to-face demonstrations of the product in poor, un-electrified villages were carried out.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The design process yielded an inexpensive yet highly useful lantern design which is attuned to the needs of the impoverished population. Keeping in mind the $20 off-the-shelf cost limit, the bulk-manufacturing cost was limited to $10 in order to allow for overhead (profit, transportation, tax) on the way to the consumer. Within this cost structure, the student team designed a lantern that produces roughly twice as much light as the average kerosene “hurricane” lanterns popular in India and elsewhere and lasts for 5–6 hours per night. Circuitry was included to limit the battery discharge cycle so that the battery will last for three to four years, eliminating the need for replacement of batteries in locations where they are impossible to get.

Using this design, prototype lanterns were constructed in a durable housing which is largely waterproof and shockproof. Sixty-five prototypes were built by hand in rural Orissa, India, in the lab space of a partner non-governmental aid organization which is located just minutes from poor, un-electrified villages. While the initial plan was to simply distribute the lanterns as gifts and ask for feedback, it was quickly realized that a large demand actually existed for even the prototypes, and that there would be no need to give them away. Instead, the lamps were sold for 950 rupees ($21.40) each, directly to poor kerosene-lamp users in surrounding communities who were eager to adopt the new technology.

Remarkably, most of the consumers who bought lanterns earned just $1–$2 per day, but were more than willing to make an investment of 950 rupees ($21.40) in order to avoid paying for kerosene lamp fuel in the future. The closest similar lighting device available in Orissa, India, a government-subsidized solar-powered fluorescent lantern, is nearly three times the off-the-shelf cost (and six times the manufacturing cost) of our low-power LED-based device.

The student team was mildly stunned by the success of the trial, and a student-owned company has already spun off of the project. Both the university and the student-owned company are now working to rapidly bring this technology to the market on a larger scale.

Proposed Phase II Objectives and Strategies:

The team’s first goal in phase two is to incorporate feedback gained directly from the end users and to optimize the already-successful design for mass production. Industrial design and manufacturing engineering students and advisers will rework the lantern enclosure and form factor. A team will be dispatched to China this summer to visit component sources, and to make plans with a final manufacturer. Injection molding tooling will be produced which can be used to create an economically sustainably mass-marketable product. A trial production run of 1000 units will then be distributed by our partner NGO and by newly interested officials in Africa. The student-owned company which has been incorporated to move the product into the marketplace will have the opportunity to benefit not only the end users, but also to help the entire world, by reducing global warming emissions.

Supplemental Keywords:

Treatment/Control, Sustainable Industry/Business, Scientific Discipline, RFA, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Sustainable Environment, Technology, Environmental Engineering, Carbon Dioxide, Clean Technologies, Green Design, Clean Energy, Kerosense Alternative, Solar Powered LED Lanterns, Alternative Energy Source, Environmentally Friendly Green Products, Environmentally Conscious Design,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, TREATMENT/CONTROL, Sustainable Industry/Business, Sustainable Environment, Technology, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Environmental Engineering, clean energy, clean technologies, green design, kerosense alternative, solar powered LED lanterns, carbon dioxide, environmentally friendly green products, alternative energy source, pollution prevention

Relevant Websites:

Phase 2 Abstract

P3 Phase II:

An Innovative System for Bioremediation of Agricultural Chemicals for Environmental Sustainability  | 2008 Progress Report  | Final Report