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Light Unto the Developing World

A Massachusetts architect and a personal solar power system — Portable Light — bring comfort and better medical chances to South African TB patients.

Sheila Kennedy has never been comfortable deploying her talents for the well-to-do. While her architecture colleagues were busy designing LED-lined runways for fashion shows, she was wondering how that same technology could help nomads and indigent farmers. A quick, forceful speaker with an unabashedly idealistic streak, Kennedy, 48, led a group of designers and engineers to create a new lighting material, Portable Light, which she believes could help the world’s poor harvest their own light — light with an undeniable aesthetic quality. “It is — perhaps this is too subjective — kind of magical,” Kennedy says, “though that could be a filter coming from our understanding of what it could do, what it already has done.”

Portable Light is a patented combination of familiar technologies — flexible solar panels, LED lights and a lithium cell phone battery — that together form a cheap, renewable lighting system. By integrating the three elements into a single piece of fabric, Kennedy and her team have created a material that they hope can expand the advantages of lighting to some of the 1.7 billion people worldwide without access to electric power.

Designed specifically for “off the grid” conditions in the Third World tropics, Portable Light is lightweight, flexible and durable and can be incorporated into all sorts of culturally significant objects, including ponchos or shoulder bags. Now, by teaming with a charismatic American doctor who works in a South African slum, Kennedy hopes to adapt Portable Light to the needs of advanced tuberculosis patients. With this new project, she is out to prove not only that Portable Light can help comfort and heal the sick but also that solar-powered personal lighting units are a viable answer to large-scale challenges of electrification.

Portable Light emerged from Kennedy & Violich Architecture, a Cambridge, Mass., firm co-founded by Kennedy and her husband Franco Violich. In addition to a portfolio of conventional building projects, the firm houses a materials-research division called MATx (after the French materieux) where designers incorporate cutting-edge electronics into building materials. Kennedy is especially fascinated by light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, solid crystals whose electrons vibrate and emit light when activated by an electrical current. Even though LEDs are far more efficient than conventional light bulbs, which produce light through the heating of a filament, they are still relegated mostly to niche applications — you can find them blinking in alarm clocks, walk signals and children’s sneakers. For Kennedy, the unique qualities of LEDs invite design innovation. “The principle,” she says, “is that you can take something that’s small and underperforming — an LED is not as bright as [an incandescent] light bulb — and turn that liability into an advantage, with the right application.”

Each Portable Light unit consists of a 17-by-17-inch fabric panel. Two flexible solar panels are sewn on one side; these power a lithium cell phone battery, tucked in a small pocket on the corner. On the other side, stitched at opposite ends of the fabric, are two LED “chips” of roughly the same dimensions as a postage stamp — a recent innovation formed by stacking thin slices of the crystal into a single sheet. A shiny aluminum film coats the fabric, reflecting the light emitted by the LEDs. “We borrowed this idea from 19th-century surgeons who used to operate by candlelight and used mirrors to maximize the light,” says Kennedy. By rolling the fabric in a cylinder or a cone or by laying it flat, the user can create different forms of light: a focused flashlight, a reading lamp, a broad ambient light source.

In 2005, Kennedy, an anthropologist, and a group of architecture students from the University of Michigan took Portable Light to the Sierra Madre in Mexico, where they introduced it to a group of Huichol Indians. The students had incorporated the technology into a variety of potentially useful designs, among them a study desk and a poncho. Though the families seemed taken with the brilliant fabric, the real breakthrough came when one woman asked Kennedy if she could use the technology in her own designs. She ended up weaving the solar panels and LEDs into a traditional Huichol shoulder bag. “Portable Light is physically adaptable, but it has to be culturally adaptable too,” Kennedy says. “We create the technology, then allow local communities to decide, according to their own needs, how best to adapt it.” Later, the MATx team added a microprocessor to the fabric, allowing several squares of Portable Light to hook together, to share power and to be synchronized in regard to the intensity of their light.

The experience with the Huichol helped Kennedy’s team not only to improve the technology but also to understand that they were only beginning to skim the surface of an enormous market. In sub-Saharan Africa, where fewer than one in four people have access to reliable electricity, poor families regularly spend up to 15 percent of their income on dim kerosene lamps. How could Portable Light begin to address such people’s specific needs? One answer came last November, when Kennedy attended Pop!Tech, an annual innovation conference in Camden, Maine. During her presentation, she took a hammer to a Portable Light unit to demonstrate its resilience and adaptability to a nomadic lifestyle. Watching from the audience was Krista Dong, who was in Maine to speak about her work with tuberculosis patients in South Africa. “She seemed hard-core and intimidating, but her work was all heart,” recalls Dong, 46.

Then an infectious disease fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dong arrived in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 2000. At the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, KwaZulu-Natal also has one of the highest HIV/tuberculosis co-infection rates in the world. Fiercely dedicated to her patients, Dong launched a program to improve treatment and community outreach programs at Edendale Hospital, a government-run facility that serves the region’s poorest citizens.

A few days after the conference, Dong and Kennedy met to brainstorm about possible collaborations. Even in South Africa’s sunny climate, Dong says, it is common to see people wandering the streets wrapped in coats and blankets, their bodies wracked by the chills of advanced TB. At the overcrowded Edendale Hospital, only 20 percent of confirmed TB cases could be admitted for treatment, and, of those, 70 percent were discharged before being completely cured. Because of space limitations, this was a necessary strategy but also a dangerous one; those who fail to complete the treatment regimen can develop an all-but-certainly-fatal, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis strain. Faced with the limitations of hospital care, Dong’s group developed a home treatment kit in conjunction with traditional healers. The kits need to work in homes without electrical heat or lighting.

As Dong spoke, Kennedy dug up a bolt of red microfiber fabric — a sample from another MATx project — and proposed weaving Portable Light into a solar-powered blanket. “By the end of our meeting, I was hyperventilating,” Dong says. “Afterwards I e-mailed home. I said, ‘I can’t believe it; we’re going to make a blanket out of that crazy light!’”

In January, Dong’s group, known as iTEACH, secured a grant to work intensively with 500 advanced tuberculosis patients; the Portable Light blanket will be a key component of their home treatment kits. The blanket is based on a well-known medical fact: Sunlight helps kill the tuberculosis bacterium. In South Africa, TB patients who are lucky enough to receive a Red Cross emergency blanket can withstand their chills and sit outside in the sun, much like patients in a 19th-century sanatorium. A Portable Light blanket would bring the added advantage of solar power: As patients soak up the sun through their faces, their Portable Light blankets are also charged so they can serve as a light source or a heated blanket at night. “The families will love it,” Dong says. “It’s so different, and I think their eyes are going to just light up.”

The success of the Portable Light blanket will help determine if the technology can move from design experiment to practical and widespread tool. Portable Light is part of a percolating movement of small-scale electrification and may soon be competing with other off-the-grid lighting systems. The British Freeplay Foundation, which distributes a popular hand-crank radio in Africa, is developing a LifeLight along similar lines; the Light Up the World Foundation, in Canada, has distributed LED lanterns to villagers in Nepal for years. “There’s room for different approaches, and it’s not clear which is best,” says Sloan Kulper, who works at MATx. “What differentiates us is that we come from a design-centered process, and we try to understand the fine points of use and cultural integration.”

Kennedy likens Portable Light’s adaptation of LED lighting to Thomas Edison’s attempts to find a practical use for electrical generators. “There wasn’t an electrical infrastructure he could plug into,” Kennedy says. “So one of the first applications was on board a ship — an enclosed, free-floating environment.” The specific needs of the patients of KwaZulu-Natal create a sort of floating ship for Portable Light, a place to test the technology’s immediate and long-term implications.

“Working in the so-called Third World, not only are we bringing people the benefits of a little power, we’re also getting great ideas about how we can translate these technologies to our own countries,” Kennedy says. “The idea that we’re going to have a top-down centralized system of lighting in our housing and architecture is a historically outdated idea.”

Lindsey McCormack is an associate editor at 02138 magazine.