Make Your Own Light- Eliza Martin

Three months ago, SEAS was working to create an insole to help relieve pain associated with plantar fasciitis. After creating a prototype for our design, the group took a step back from the chaos of senior year over winter break. We had the opportunity to reevaluate the purpose of our group and whether or not we were fully invested in spending our remaining semester of high school working to create a shoe insole. After a winter break filled with lots of food, family, and sleep, SEAS came back ready to reevaluate our purpose as a group. After a discussion that was geared towards examining our interest in our shoe insole, we realized that we didn’t want to dedicate our final semester of high school to making yet another shoe insole for a very competitive market that would likely not have a large impact on the lives of others. Stephanie and Sofia felt that their time would be better spent working to finish refurbishing a trailer that could be used for medical purposes at the Ann Richards School. Andrea is working to make a charging station for electronics that can be used in the school. Initially, I was interested in writing a thesis that would examine the medical ethics surrounding preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). As one of the few girls in the biomedical-engineering class who does not want to pursue a career in the biomedical or engineering pathway, I was interested in examining the international ethics surrounding PGD. Due to the inability for this assignment to produce a physical model or prototype for the Ann Richards School Maker Faire, I was told to reevaluate my options and that I couldn’t do this project. After spending a panicked hour and a half desperately trying to think of a project that I would want to spend the next semester working on, I realized a project that I would be able to work on for the next semester.

In a previous blog post I briefly mentioned my involvement with the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam program. In tenth grade I worked with a group of about twelve girls to create a non-electric pressurized produce preserver that could be used in developing countries to store antibiotics and food. The process was not only extremely rewarding, but it taught me a lot about the design process. One of the most important lessons that I gleaned during my time in InvenTeam is that you really have to be passionate about what you are building and creating because working on the same project for seven months is exhausting and can be monotonous if you are not invested. Luckily, I cared a great deal about the non-electric pressurized produce preserver, so while the project felt tedious at times, it was easy to remember the ultimate goal of the project. One of the largest concerns that I had when I was trying to decide what to create in this class was whether of not I was passionate about it. During the process of brainstorming for a product to create in InvenTeam, we tossed around ideas such as a color-changing correction fluid or a solar-powered affordable light for developing countries. While we ended up working to create a pressurized produce preserver, I wanted to create a solar-powered light made of recyclable materials for developing countries. It is hard to imagine countries that basic amenities such as water and food, but many that do have access to food and water, struggle to have access to electricity. Last year, my dad spent two weeks volunteering at a dump in Nicaragua. He provided medical care to the people who lived in and around the dump, who sort and sift through trash for a living. Aside from the obvious lack of basic amenities, my dad described the lack of electricity in the shanty houses around the dump. Children who were fortunate enough to attend a school in a village a few miles away would leave their house before dark in the morning, and arrive home as the sun was setting. The children and members of the family, all without electricity, could not study, read, or do anything that required electricity. For the children who have to continue their education at home after the school day with homework or extra reading so that they can stay prepared and ready for class, they cannot do this. So, when the opportunity to build/create in Biomedical-Engineering, I was drawn to create a solar-powered light.

After spending time researching everything related to solar-panels and light energy, I discovered that there were quite a few products currently on the market that are solar-powered lights that can be purchased rather cheaply. There are many products available on the market that are similar to the product that I envision creating. While many of the products available similar to the one I aim to create, are designed to be relatively cheap (approximately $30), they are not found often in developing countries that lack electricity. I was particularly intrigued and impressed by an organization called Liter of Light.

Liter of Light technology that has inspired Make Your Own Light courtesy of Ace Welfare
Liter of Light technology that has inspired Make Your Own Light courtesy of Ace Welfare

A Liter of Light is an international organization that aims to provide a free-of-cost source of interior light. What is particularly genius about the organization is the light producing device: it uses the refraction properties of water to provide light and bleach to discourage the growth of algae in the liter of water. The liter water bottle is then mounted within the roof, with about half of it sticking out through the roof and catching the sunlight. Liter of Light is an amazing organization and is in countless countries throughout the world including Peru, India, and the Philippines. The organization is not involved in Nicaragua and the Liter of Light does not produce light during the night. 

Nicaragua is the country in Central America with the lowest energy generation as well as the lowest percentage of population with access to electricity (CIA World Factbook). The constant fluctuations in the political and economic structure of Nicaragua poses significant challenges for the implementation of basic infrastructure. While 76.2% of households in Nicaragua were electrified according to the Nicaraguan national government, leaving 1.4 million Nicaraguans without electricity. For the rest of Central America, the electrical coverage rates range from 99% in Costa Rica to 82% in Guatemala, putting Nicaragua’s electrical coverage rate of 76.2% drastically lower than Guatemala’s. The growing gap between the electrical access in the urban and rural areas has left many rural Nicaraguans drastically farther behind in development than the Nicaraguans with access to reliable electricity in urban centers. The lack of electricity not only causes harmful toxins to be released from coal and wood stoves in houses, but the lack of electricity leaves houses without light. For the rural Nicaraguans, their day begins and ends with the sun. For school-aged children, this means very little time to complete homework and extend their studies at home.

Typical housing in rural Nicaragua courtesy of National Geographic.
Typical housing in rural Nicaragua courtesy of National Geographic.

In families, the lack of light makes it difficult for families to spend time together as their houses are plunged into darkness as soon as the sun goes down. The lack of light also makes continuing work in the night and access to healthcare difficult as physicians are only able to treat the high number of patients for a reduced number of hours that in developed countries.

Make Your Own Light is working to create a light that is completely made of recyclable materials that has the ability to be easily created and uses green technology. In the next few weeks, I plan to begin using Google SketchUp to create a sketch of my design and begin prototyping. I’ve been playing catch-up for the past few weeks as I attempt to learn how to use Google SketchUp, so I’m excited to begin to finally get my hands dirty and begin creating!

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