Most of the 7,000 islands in the Philippines have little to no access to electricity; when engineer Aisa Mijeno discovered this, she decided to team up with her brother Raphael and create a solution–a sustainable lamp that ran on a renewable, easy-to-find resource, in this case, a salt water battery.
The team created SALt, a lamp that doesn’t require electricity or extra batteries. Pre-equipped with a galvanic cell battery with two electrodes, the lamp is activated by the electrolytes in saltwater. All users need are two tablespoons of salt and a glass of water — or a bit of seawater, which many living in the Philippines have access to in abundance — to have light for eight hours.
Mijeno sensed a particular need for this technology in the Philippines, which ranked 13th for risks from impacts of global warming in the 2016 Climate Change Vulnerability Index and also still has 25 coal-fired power plants nationwide and only 2 percent of zero-emission energy. As a volunteer living with the Butbut tribe in Buscalan, Kalinga in 2011, Mijeno saw just how devastating this lack of electricity was on the local population.
“People did not have access to electricity and had to walk 12 hours to reach Bontoc, a town about 50 kilometers away, to get kerosene for their fuel-based lamps,” she told Tech in Asia. Kerosene is dangerous, inefficient, and expensive; according to the World Bank, breathing kerosene fumes is as toxic as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
Mijeno’s idea to solve this problem involved taking advantage of a relatively old technology, dating back to the 19th century.
“If you did the lemon-battery experiment, that’s basically it,” says Mijeno. “Two different metals submerged in electrolytes will produce electricity. For us, we used saltwater.”
But while a renewable salt water battery lamp seems like the ideal solution to this problem, a recent article from Inquirer.net challenged earlier reports about the innovation, which focused on the renewable components of the battery — the salt and the water — and not on the battery itself, particularly the metal anode that needs to be replaced every six months. For the battery to be truly renewable, a system of recycling will need to be established for these anodes, something Mijeno addressed briefly with Inquirer.net.
“After using the lamp, there will be a lump of metal,” she said. “You can still use it, melt it out and produce another consumable for the lamp.”
She even highlighted the ways in which this downfall could be an advantage in creating employment in this part of the world. “There will be communities that will gather up the consumable to be delivered to our site in Biñan, which we will be able to recycle into a useful anode system.”
Mijeno pitched the idea to Ideaspace Foundation in 2013, where it was accepted. It subsequently won several awards for innovation, including most recently the Development Communication 10 Hildegarde Awards in 2016, and was recognized at the Apec summit last November by Barack Obama. But little has been said about it since this summer, and this may be due to a variety of issues.
The first is price: the lamp is priced at $35 – quite high for poor families. Mijeno has said the company is working on improving the lamp’s durability past the current 10 to 11 years to make the investment worthwhile.
Another issue has to do with raising money for such a project. “There is a certain degree of difficulty when it comes to achieving financials enough to sustain and to scale a social enterprise and/or a hardware startup,” she says. Without proper funding, the prototype cannot be further developed nor can the product be marketed on a large scale.
Mijeno’s lack of experience in the milieu may also play some role. “I was asked about my marketing strategy and business model,” she told Tech in Asia. “I honestly answered I had zero knowledge on that side, and what I had was born out of compassion for the people I met during my travels.”
But it may just be this passion that saves the project. Mijeno told Inquirer.net that she is interested in help from experts to turn this lamp prototype into the renewable energy tool of the future that it promises to be, so that she can make it available to NGOs and partner foundations, who will hope get it to families in the Philippines and across the globe. While it is initially being conceived as an emergency energy source, it may just be the beginning of a new form of renewable energy for us all.
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Lamp on boat image via Shutterstock