Let there be light

By Patrick Boyle

Imagine it is the last night before the final exam in the course you have been ignoring since the beginning of the semester. Your last hope is to spend the night reviewing your notes, reading the textbook and going over previous exams. Imagine the feeling of stress that washes over you when you realize the amount of work that lies ahead.

Now imagine doing all this in the dark

People living in the Western world often fail to make the important connection between light, which we so often take for granted, and education. This important realization struck Dr. Dave Irvine-Halliday during a visit to the remote villages of Nepal in 1997.

“I remember looking into one of these schools and asking myself ‘How can these kids learn?’” said Dr. Irvine-Halliday, a University of Calgary professor of Electrical Engineering and the President of the Light Up The World Foundation. “In all the West, we don’t need to think about the connection between adequate lighting and education. We take electricity for granted. These folk have waited long enough for a safe, adequate form of lighting.”

The Technology

Since its creation three years ago, LUTW began a hugely successful campaign that has thus far brought light to approximately 1,000 homes in ten countries in Southeast Asia and South America. One of the catalysts that helped the group off the ground is Dr. Irvine-Halliday’s technical background in electronics, which inspired him to use white light emitter diode (WLED) technology. Using WLEDs as sources of light is fundamentally counter-intuitive: they are used most commonly as indicators that produce a very small amount of unfocused light using a very small amount of power (such as the battery light on a walkman).

The beauty of the WLED apparatus, which is called “Luxeon” by its manufacturers, is that it uses the same miniscule amount of electricity as its dim younger brother, but when it is implemented with the driver circuit concocted by the professor, it puts out an incredibly bright, focused cone of light.

“Normal incandescent bulbs go as low as 20 Watts, and fluorescent lights are between six and ten Watts,” said Dr. Irvine-Halliday with the telltale enthusiasm of someone who loves his job. “On the other hand, our lamps use one Watt and they last decades. With the Luxeons, we are able to light homes to a useful level. Understand that we’re not trying to light every corner: someday, homes will be lit by steady-state lights, but currently, the use of WLEDs is restricted to task-based lighting.”

The WLED component is manufactured by Lumileds, a Silicon Valley-based joint venture between Phillips Lighting and Hewlett Packard. Thanks to a contract signed by the company, LUTW is able to obtain the parts at a very low cost, as long as they are used for charitable purposes.

“The LUTW agreement with Lumileds has been a huge assistance to our cause,” said Dr. Irvine-Halliday. “If we are the people who have driven down the cost of this kind of lighting, it makes it a lot easier to garner funding from the international community. If we can build up a global presence, not only because of professionalism and knowledge but by bringing in big companies, anyone in the world can afford proper home lighting.”

The next step in corporate partnership is to strike a deal with manufacturers of solar panels, such as Japan-based Kyocera. As it stands, the power for LUTW programs is generated by pedal-based generators, small-scale hydro operations, or solar cells. Although human-powered sources are adequate and efficient–with 30 minutes of pedalling supplying 40 hours of illumination–solar cells are preferable because of their simplicity and ease of use. The major impediment to their widespread use in LUTW is their high cost.


Indeed, the costly nature of the entire process presents a major challenge to LUTW. Fortunately, the foundation has become the recipient of attention from the international community, not only in terms of recognition for their excellent work, but also in terms of much needed financial backing.

“The Rolex Award will prove to be extremely useful,” said Dr. Irvine-Halliday, referring to the $100,000 (U.S.) prize that he received for being chosen as one of five laureates for the 2002 Rolex Awards for enterprise. “There’s no question that we’re being recognized, but it can’t stop here. Light Up The World isn’t going to light up the world alone.”

The Swiss watch-making firm awards five prizes every two years. Their aim is to support projects that attempt to enhance the world and the lives of people through financial aid and international recognition. Other laureates for 2002 include the developer of a system that warns ships of impending collisions with whales, a Brazilian conservationist trying to protect the rain forest of his country, and a retired biologist who helped the people of Eritrea establish a low-tech, sustainable economy based on mangroves.

In addition to the Rolex Award, Dr. Irvine-Halliday and his foundation have been nominated for a number of other prestigious prizes. The Tech Museum, based in California, gives five $50,000 (U.S.) prizes each year for various different categories of innovation. The foundation has been chosen as a finalist for the Knight Ridder Equality Award, for which candidates must have applied technology to “profoundly improve human equality.” Dr. Irvine-Halliday and two of his colleagues will attend the 2002 Tech Awards Gala in Silicon Valley on Nov. 7.

Locally, Dr. Irvine-Halliday was nominated for the President’s Inter nationalization Achievement Award at the U of C and for the Lewis Perinbam Award for International Development, sponsored by the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Both prizes honour exceptional individuals who have made a difference in the international community.

“To establish the success of the Light Up The World Foundation, Dr. Irvine-Halliday has been indescribably dedicated,” said Cory Bass, the U of C graduate and LUTW executive member who nominated the professor for the CBIE award. “The donation of every spare minute of his waking hours to the people of the developing world is evidence of his deep care for this project. His ideas are poised to create a revolution in this world that will reach all of us–even those who live in the developed world–as the power of education cannot be underestimated.”

Not Enough time

Given Dr. Irvine-Halliday’s tremendous commitment to his charitable work, it is hard to believe that he has time for a day job. All the same, he somehow manages to teach a full course load, including a second year circuitry course for non-electrical engineers.

“Unfortunately, running Light Up The World isn’t my full-time job,” he explains longingly. “I’m an electrical engineer–I’m supposed to be an expert in fibre optics! So, the biggest thing holding me back is my day job. If money wasn’t an issue and if I could find someone to take over the classes that I teach, I would quit teaching today.”

Obviously, that situation will not arise in the near future. Nevertheless, Dr. Irvine-Halliday is optimistic about the future of LUTW. The foundation’s receipt of a Rolex Award has created a significant stir in the international community. This newfound fame has allowed the professor to forge connections on behalf of both his foundation and the U of C as a whole. For instance, at Stanford University, widely thought of as a leader in the technical community, a like-minded scholar pondered having one of his electrical engineering classes undertake a project for LUTW.

“A colleague of mine who teaches at a university in Africa took it upon himself to send out an e-mail message asking several dozen academics in Southern Africa and Australia if they would be interested in taking on technical projects to help the foundation’s cause,” said the proud Dr. Irvine-Halliday. “So far, he has received around 20 replies, all of which are from people who are eager to help. This is rapidly becoming a world-wide project.”

Getting Involved

For individuals who are interested in helping with LUTW, there are a number of options. Firstly, of course, financial aid is greatly needed and greatly appreciated. Donations can be made at the LUTW website www.lutw.org. As for volunteer work, Dr. Irvine-Halliday is happy to bring on new people, but is quick to offer a word of caution to people who see themselves as potential new recruits.

“The first thing that I would say to readers of this article who think they would like to work with the foundation is this: read the article again,” said the professor emphatically. “After that, have a good look at our website. Get an idea of what you think you would be able to do with the foundation. When people who want to get involved come to talk to me, I ask them two questions. Firstly, what do you think you can contribute? Secondly, what amount of time are you willing to commit?”

Evidently, working with LUTW is no easy task. However, it is by no means an impossible feat for a student to accomplish. For example, third year Chemistry major Kate Jones spent the entire summer travelling in Nepal and Sri Lanka with Dr. Irvine-Halliday. She did clerical work as he helped establish lighting operations in villages.

“It was hard work, but in the end, it was all worthwhile,” she said of her experience travelling with LUTW. “It totally changed the way that I perceive both the country that I live in and the world as a whole. I came home, sat down in my room, and looked around. I remember thinking ‘I have more stuff than those people will have in their entire lives.’”

The exceptional work of Dr. Irvine-Halliday has brought fame and prestige to the U of C. Above and beyond the charitable merit of the foundation’s exploits, the research of WLED technology is the first step in the exciting new field of low-cost, high-efficiency, steady-state lighting systems. The Rolex Award will no doubt be the first of a great number of accolades, especially since the foundation’s work has only just begun.

“We’re cursed with opportunities,” said Dr. Irvine-Halliday. “I have multiple binders filled with e-mails from virtually every country in the world that say ‘Please, come light up our village.’ There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

Patrick Boyle is the Gauntlet Science, Technology and Society writer.

For more information visit:


Tech Museum Awards



[2003-07-17 Ed note: Please go to the Light Up The World Foundation web site to contact the individuals involved in this project.]

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