Canadian Consulting Engineer

Journey to Nepal

October 1, 2003
By Nordahl Flakstad

Many travellers have ventured to Nepal searching for enlightenment, but there are few like Dave Irvine-Halliday, P.Eng. who have lit up the Himalayan kingdom. That is what's happened as a result of th...

Many travellers have ventured to Nepal searching for enlightenment, but there are few like Dave Irvine-Halliday, P.Eng. who have lit up the Himalayan kingdom. That is what’s happened as a result of the University of Calgary professor of electrical engineering’s Light Up the World (LUTW) Foundation. The foundation is bringing efficient, economical and environmentally friendly solid-state lighting not only to Nepal, but also to an estimated two billion people worldwide who, lacking electricity, are left in the dark each sundown.

“We haven’t invented anything,” Irvine-Halliday unassumingly explains, seated amid the books and electrical apparatus that crowd his Calgary office. “If you want to give us credit, it should be for being the first to realize that solid-state lighting could be applied to light more of the developing world.”

He certainly doesn’t tire of telling about his conversion. It occurred in 1997 during a sabbatical leave, part of which Irvine-Halliday spent in Kathmandu, Nepal, helping set up electrical engineering labs at Tribhuvan University Institute.

When the Scots-born Canadian expert in photonics extended his stay to teach a short course in fibre optics, he was left with some time to fill after the course was completed. So, this already-seasoned mountaineer and runner decided to trek into the high reaches, some 18,000 feet above sea level, along Nepal’s legendary Annapurna Circuit.

Figuratively, it’s a journey from which Dave Irvine-Halliday has never returned.

Along the path, the trekker heard singing as he approached a small schoolhouse in a remote village. The visitor poked his head into the classroom but it turned out the singing pupils were outside, on the other side of the school — and for good reason.

“There was literally nothing in the classroom, nothing — no kids, table, teacher, chairs, books and no light!” Irvine-Halliday recalls. “My first thought was, ‘It’s so dark in there how can these kids learn? Is there anything I can do?'”

“I was 54 and had never had a single thought about lighting and the developing world. Then it started to cascade,” he explains with a Scots lilt that is still very noticeable after decades in Canada.

Inspired and haunted by that dim classroom, Irvine-Halliday returned to Calgary, determined to do something to brighten the lives of the students and other Nepalese villagers. Though benefiting from his expertise in photonics and light, Irvine-Halliday really didn’t consider himself an illumination expert. He admits, “I was at the bottom of the learning curve.”

While it’s possible to produce less expensive incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes, in the developing world the drawback of such devices is their relatively high electrical consumption and high operating cost. A 100-watt light bulb may throw off 95 watts of largely wasted heat. Irvine-Halliday decided the answer lay beyond traditional devices. His search led to places like Radio Shack stores, where he checked out light-emitting diodes (LED), familiar to us from applications such as the red lights found on TV remote controls or on novelty items, including penlights.

Solid-state lighting had been around since the 1960s. The technology improved in the 1990s through the development of high-brightness LEDs that were long-lasting and required little energy. Produced using layers of silicon on a sapphire substrate, thousands of LEDs can be formed on a substrate a quarter-inch-square. Tiny gold contacts are applied to each chip site and each individual chip is packaged to form a lighting device.

Traditionally, LEDs emitted light in pure coloured wavelengths, enough light perhaps to illuminate a red exit sign, but insufficient to let someone read.

But once again serendipity was present as Irvine-Halliday ran across the website of Nichia, a Japanese company. Through the addition of a phosphorous-doped layer on blue high-brightness LEDs, Nichia had succeeded in making a LED emitting white light. The company’s American agent agreed to ship two dozen 0.1 watt white LEDs — “WLEDs” — to Calgary.

Aided by technician John Shelley, Irvine-Halliday attached a single 0.1 watt WLED to a makeshift casing. It did not light up a darkened room, but it cast a cone of light sufficient for reading a book 18 inches away.

“That was the eureka moment,” Irvine-Halliday recalls. “I worked on it every weekend for a year, and at some point it had taken over my life.” He hooked up a cluster of WLEDs that were sufficient to illuminate a small room but required only a fraction of the wattage needed for a conventional incandescent bulb (with 1,400 WLEDs, an entire village can be lit by the power required for one 100-watt incandescent bulb). Helped by some of his students, Irvine-Halliday improved the pedal generator that he had developed. With half an hour of easy effort, the generator can recharge enough 12-volt batteries to allow six WLED lamps to run for four hours.

In 1999, the Irvine-Hallidays, Dave, his wife Jenny and their son Gregor, travelled to Nepal for show-and-tell-and-sell. Not much selling was needed to convince the villagers in Nepal, where only six per cent of households have reliable power. Demonstration systems were installed in several villages and this year some 1,000 Nepalese households (1,400 worldwide) are benefiting from WLED lighting powered by various sources, including pedal generators, pico-hydro turbines (200 watt) and solar panels. The WLED lighting systems are manufactured by Pico Power Nepal, a micro-company formed in Kathmandu with Irvine-Halliday’s backing.

Recognizing the wider global potential of solid state lighting, in 1999 Dave Irvine-Halliday established the Light Up the World Foundation to cast WLED light far beyond Nepal. Similar projects by the foundation and its affiliates are under way in India, Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia, Angola and South Africa.

The foundation has moved light years from its humble beginnings. It has been recognized with major international awards, including one of the five US $100,000 Rolex Awards for Enterprise presented in 2002 for visionary and innovative projects in science, technology, exploration, the environment and cultural heritage. In 2002, the foundation also received a Knight Ridder Equality Award, one of five US $50,000 prizes presented through the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

The foundation also works closely with Professor Bill Behrman of Stanford University, with Massachussetts Institute of Technology, and universities in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Lumileds, manufacturer of a 1-watt WLED in California, has recognized the proselytizing value of Light up the World initiatives and supplies the foundation with WLEDs at cost.

Despite such support and that of other volunteers, plus the work of two paid staff in Calgary, the foundation’s resources are stretched gossamer thin in fielding queries and requests for WLED assistance. The foundation is providing advice to affiliated groups developing WLED systems in Latin America and Africa. A Calgary Rotary Club has teamed with its opposite number in India to bring WLED lighting to 1,000 Calcutta homes.

By requiring less energy, WLED or solid state lighting could help alleviate the troublesome environmental problem of millions of dry-cell batteries that litter many parts of the world. Up to 300 million dry “D” cell batteries are discarded annually in Nepal, enough by Irvine-Halliday’s calculation to build a mile-long, 6 x 6-foot mound. Using rechargeable batteries, or even just using D batteries with WLEDs that drain less energy, could help reduce that pile significantly.

Meanwhile, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque N.M. estimate that converting to WLEDs could reduce U.S. electrical consumption by 10 per cent. Irvine-Halliday agrees that WLEDs have a bright future in industrial countries. There, as in the developing world, the challenge lies in producing WLEDs more cheaply. A fixture, including the casing and multiple diodes yielding enough light to illumin
ate a room, now costs about $20.

Irvine-Halliday’s goal is “to get it [the cost] to less than $10.” However, in Nepalese villages or other places lacking power sources, it is also necessary to provide solar, pedal power or other means of charging batteries. A typical one-time cost for a foundation lighting system today is around $60. Not much by Canadian standards, but quite an investment for a villager subsisting on less than a dollar a day. Keep in mind, however, that worldwide each village family pays $80 to $160 annually for fuel-based lighting — with all its disadvantages and dangers.

Embarking on another sabbatical leave in May 2003, Irvine-Halliday, a compact dynamo of enthusiasm and energy, had lost none of his commitment. Extending the Light the World Foundation rays into Africa is a priority for the coming year as part of a goal to have a million homes in the developing world WLED-lit by 2005.

Increasingly the engineering professor who chanced upon that Nepalese schoolhouse sees the movement he founded as not just switching on lights, but turning on minds. After all, says Irvine-Halliday: “If you can facilitate lighting, you also set the stage for literacy, and that is our reason for being.”

For millions of children and adults, WLED lighting opens bright possibilities that the flickering flame of candles, fireplaces or kerosene lamps simply cannot match.

For more information about Light Up the World Foundation, check Photographs copyright Rolex/Xavier Lecoultre.


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