The Gift of Light – An Interview with Dr. Dave Irvine-Halliday, Co-Founder, LUTW

Dr. Dave Irwine-Halliday
Dr. Dave Irwine-Halliday

He stopped by an empty school and asked himself, “Without proper light how can the children see to read and study, and is there a way that I can help them?” An idea popped into his head and the rest as he says is history! Ek Titli got talking with Dr. Dave Irvine-Halliday, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Calgary, who turned his dream of lighting up homes in rural parts of developing nations into a reality. What’s more? He did it all the ‘Green Way’!

In the spring of 1997 while trekking on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, Dr. Irvine-Halliday visited local villages, and was struck by the poor condition of the people. Most of them relied on kerosene lamps which produced little light and filled homes with dangerous smoke. Given the meagre income of these Nepali villagers, he realized their dire need for very simple, affordable and rugged lighting. He envisioned using some form of Light Emitting Diode (LED) illumination to bring practical, economical, and environmentally safe lighting to developing communities across the world.

Barely bigger than a pinhead, LEDs emit much more light than a glow-worm. Today they are found in many everyday devices – on the dashboard of a car, standby light on the TV set, on washing machines, digital camera flash, in aircraft cockpits, on emergency exit signs and in displays on cell phones and pocket calculators. In addition, even automobile lights are powered by Light Emitting Diodes, popularly known as LEDs. It thus dawned on Dr. Irvine-Halliday that LEDs, already in use in numerous devices and technologies can also be an efficient source for lighting up homes.

At the University of Calgary, lab technician John Shelley was parallely experimenting with green LEDs, a breakthrough lighting technology created by Japanese engineers and scientists, to be used in Dr. Dave’s fiber optic lab. Dr. Halliday was surprised with the unique combination of intense light, durability, tremendously low energy consumption and reasonable cost.

In Nepal, Dave had the idea of mixing LEDs of various colours to make white light to be used in small lamps for homes and public institutes like schools and hospitals in the developing world. Dave and John did succeed in making ‘white light’ this way but it was unfortunately too dim to be of much practical use. In late 1998 when surfing the Net, Dave discovered that there was a White LED (WLED) made by Nichia in Japan and he immediately called them for samples. Without question LED lighting for the developing world was conceived in Nepal, but the Eureka moment was when he and John powered up the first Nichia WLED in his lab and on seeing it work his first reaction was, “Good God, John, a child could read by the light of a single diode!” Under Dave’s direction John worked with several other lab technicians from the University to develop the first circuits for the WLED lamps.

Solar panel
Solar panel

The belief ‘Light is a Right” lead to the birth of the “Nepal Light Project” in 1997. In late 1999 Dave came up with the name ‘Light Up The World’ (LUTW) for his family funded project and it eventually became a legal and independent Foundation in 2002; LUTW uses only the very best WLEDs with a lifetime of 50,000 hours, but the life of the entire lamp or luminaire will be somewhat less as the electronic components and the printed circuit boards that they are attached to it will normally fail before the LED. It is however fair to assume that the lamps will have a shelf and field life in excess of 20,000 hours and assuming the lamps are used for 5 hours per night; they have a shelf-life of well over 12 years.

LUTW believes that as far as possible, developing countries can have high quality and ultra reliable electric lighting by purchasing WLED systems themselves instead of relying on their respective governments to act.

Dr. Irvine-Halliday explains,
India has solar power in abundance but is yet to be utilized to its maximum capacity. Solar Thermal power is presently used for cooking and heating water and in the future it can be used for generating electricity also.

  • Low Power (2W-20W) Solar Photovoltaic (SPV) systems can be used for: Solid State Lighting (SSL) LED systems for homes and street lighting; cell phone charging; UVLED water treatment; general battery charging for torches, radios, etc.
  • Moderate Power (30W-100W) SPV systems can be used for commerce such as: computers, sewing machines, etc. In fact it is a matter of great pride that LUTW’s SSL system contributes positively to all eight of the primary UN Millennium Development Goals.

He further adds that, “The benefits are visible through economic savings; safety from home fires leading to loss of property; and a reduction in the injuries to old people falling in the dark; health; micro enterprise; etc.”

Taking the example of a typical South African shanty town, Dr. Irvine-Halliday says that in 5 years an average family will save 80% of what they would have spent on kerosene in addition to having the SSL system as a physical asset, which they can sell in an emergency. “The cost of a very well built fire and weather proof permanent home in South Africa is around 3.5 years of kerosene costs”, he states.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh also saw the incredible benefits that SSL could bring to India, particularly to the rural villagers. Dr. Singh mentioned to Dr. Irvine-Halliday that India subsidized kerosene to the extent of 51%. A large scale deployment of SSL throughout India (possibly using the kerosene distributors as part of the distribution chain) could save billions of dollars in kerosene subsidies, reduce the importation of kerosene, thus saving foreign currency. It would also allow the government to claim very significant Carbon Credits.

LUTW works towards bringing light to homes, hearts and lives. The organization and its pioneers strive to improve the lives of the millions of unknowns who haven’t even had the opportunity of expressing their state of affairs.

Ask Dr. Irvine-Halliday what keeps him motivated and he replies, “It is an endless passion for me and my wife Jenny to help LUTW achieve its goals and this led to the birth of ‘Visionary Lighting & Energy India (VLE)’, a For-Profit Social Enterprise whose primary goal is to: “Light up the maximum number of homes, in the minimum time, and at the least possible cost. Through VLE we can design, develop and supply LUTW with the most cost effective SSL systems.”

Dr. Halliday lighting up an orphanage in West Bengal
Dr. Halliday lighting up an orphanage in West Bengal

The foundation has worked in over 50 countries to date, bringing the Gift of Light to around 30,000 homes, hospitals, schools, community centers, temples and approximately 1 million lives. A family from Sri Lanka aptly explains LUTW’s contribution, “This is the first time in the lives of my children that they have been able to read at night.” Now that we have light, we eat when we want to, not when we have to,” said an Indian home touched by LUTW, and a Nepalese villager sums it all up, “They have given us eyes.”

Enlightening stats:
According to the LUTW statistics, if a SSL system costs less than US $100, then on the basis that India has 450 million people without electricity, i.e. approximately 60 million families, the total cost to light up these many families would approximately be US $7 billion. On an average, a rural family spends approximately US $30 (subsidized at 51%) per year, making the total kerosene cost to India per annum – US $3.6 billion. In other words, less than 2 years of subsidized kerosene payments would literally pay off the entire costs of lighting every single rural home in India, and the annual maintenance costs per family will be but a few dollars, and the solar panels and LED lamps would last for decades.


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