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January 1, 2013

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About LuminAID

Anna Stork and the LuminAID solar light
Anna Stork ’08 designed LuminAID to be a compact inflatable solar lantern. Photo courtesy of Anna Stork.

Dartmouth engineer Anna Stork ’08 developed the LuminAID prototype with her classmate Andrea Sreshta at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. Designed in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, LuminAID is the world’s first inflatable solar light. Waterproof and easy to ship, it lasts longer than a battery-powered flashlight, is safer than a kerosene lamp, and doesn’t require expensive rechargeable batteries.

“At the time there was a lot of clean water, shelter, and food being shipped to Haiti, but most people in informal settlements were without a light source,” says Stork. “There were many cases of rape and kidnapping because it was so densely populated. We saw a need for a portable light source to improve safety of people living in tents.”

Stork and Sreshta’s LuminAID Lab has since received more than 2,000 pledges to donate the solar lights to community partners in Haiti and also Nigeria, Peru, Ghana, India, and Bolivia, and pre-sold about 1,000 additional lights. The simple solar technology earned LuminAID awards and startup cash from business competitions, including the WalMart/Net Impact Better Living Business Plan Challenge and the Global Social Venture Competition.

“It’s just a solar panel with a thin rechargeable battery connected to LED lights, with the circuit integrated into the plastic. The innovation is the combination of the solar with the inflatable,” says Stork, who filed for a full patent under the offices of Columbia Technology Ventures.

LuminAID produces four to six hours of light and can be recharged in five to six hours. The device can be recharged up to 800 times and has a total shelf life of two to three years, says Stork, who first began thinking about merging sustainability and design while at Thayer.

“I took away a lot from my course in materials science at Thayer. I also learned about solar and renewable energy,” says Stork, who incorporated LuminAID Lab in 2011 with the intent of providing an immediate lighting solution for individuals in regions affected by natural disasters and wars. Her goal has since expanded as more and more hikers and campers want the solar lights for outdoor recreational use.

The LuminAID Lab “Give Light, Get Light” campaign on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo, which was launched in late 2011, combines the two uses. For $25, customers pre-buy one light and send a gift of another light to a partner foundation in a developing country. Another LuminAID Lab partner, Solar Sister, equips budding female entrepreneurs with the marketing and sales skills to sell LuminAID solar lights in Uganda. Elephant Energy follows a similar model in Namibia, and Pencils of Promise is outfitting schools with LuminAID lights in Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

According to Stork, the two-for-one approach makes sense. “We’re combining smart design with simple solar technology to provide solutions for developing countries as well as for other markets,” she says.

This article first appeared in Dartmouth Engineer Magazine.