Award: D&AD White Pencil / Black Pencil / Product Design, 2014
GravityLight generates light from gravity and can be used over and over again without need for sunshine or batteries and no running costs. At the D&AD Awards 2014, it won a Black Pencil as well as a White Pencil in the product design category.
Over 1.5 bn people – about 21% of the world’s population – have no reliable access to mains electricity. As a result, many people rely instead on biomass fuels – predominantly kerosene – for light. Industrial design specialist therefore set out to develop a light that would be affordable, sustainable and reliable anytime, anywhere.
The Creative Idea:
A light powered by gravity - just three seconds spent lifting the weight that powers the light creates light for the 25 minutes it takes for the weight to descend.
In 2009 SolarAid, an international charity based in Africa dedicated to combating poverty and climate change, asked therefore to develop a low-cost, solar-powered lantern for under $6 that could replace the kerosene lamps on which many people without access to mains electricity depend.
Having quickly identified the biggest cost factor in existing solar lights – the battery, which can account for one third of each unit’s production cost – therefore explored alternative, self-generated energy-based approaches. One of its ideas was to harvest energy from gravity.
“With cost a key issue, the idea was to generate power from a falling weight,” says Jim Reeves, therefore’s associate director at the time who is now technical director at The GravityLight Foundation.
Reeves and therefore director and co-founder Martin Riddiford calculated that a product which drew energy from the user raising a connected weight of ten to 12 kilos to head height then letting it fall would produce enough power for a light superior in brightness to a kerosene lamp.
Furthermore, for only a few seconds of physical input by the user, almost half an hour of light could be generated – a more compelling effort in: energy out ratio than, for example, self-powered products dependent on a wind-up mechanism,
SolarAid was unconvinced. “The concept was untested and there were too many unknowns involved,” Reeves explains. But as work began instead on producing a new modular solar light product for its client, the designers decided to further explore the gravity light idea as a side project.
Riddiford and Reeves set up a venture, Deciwatt, to put their gravity light idea into practice working with therefore to develop the idea over the next two years. The design underwent hundreds of different iterations as the team evolved the concept. One challenge, for example, was the bag in which the user would place the weight.
“It made no sense to distribute a weight with the light, but by letting the user provide their own weight we had no control over what weight they would use,” Reeves explains. “The bag had to have sufficient volume for someone to use a lighter substance – such as soil - instead of rock. We also developed a simple indicator that would tell the user when the bag was at its maximum weight.”
By November 2012, Riddiford and Reeves had a working prototype but knew field trials were needed to refine the product further. Without external investment, they turned to crowdfunding site indiegogo to raise $55,000 to manufacture and field test 1,000 GravityLights.
“We’d exhausted almost every other alternative as at this point, without proof of concept investment was unappealing,” says Reeves. “It was make or break.”
Seven times the goal - $399,590 – was raised. Furthermore, Deciwatt received 250 offers of help with the field trials. Riddiford and Reeves worked with 55 of these, trialling the product in 26 countries. The results led to a number of further design modifications.
A next-generation version was developed which was more compliant with safety standards, more robust and capable of holding 7.5kg to 12.5kg of weight. Certain features were removed – such as the option to adjust brightness after the initial set-up. Meanwhile, different ways for the user to lift the product with less effort were explored to make the light easier to power, especially for children.
In 2014, therefore established The GravityLight Foundation charity to which Deciwatt now works to make GravityLight a stand-alone venture.
Conversations also began with potential distributors including not for profit organisations working in countries with populations without regular access to mains electricity, and organisations involved in readying communities for power outages caused by a sudden events, such as a hurricane or typhoon.
“Getting as far as we have has required large volumes of perseverance in the face of scepticism and an unwavering belief in getting to the desired point of low cost which, we now believe, we have,” Reeves explains. “In principle, a gravity light is not difficult to do if you spend money - but we want something that’s viable, scale-able and low cost.”
A marketable version of GravityLight is due to go into production shortly with the light due to ‘soft’ launch in Africa, India and SE Asia in spring / early summer 2015. A retail price is yet to be confirmed.
Compact and robust, it will come as a kit wrapped in a ballast bag specially designed to hold the weight that powers it. The bag is connected to a proprietary electricity-generating device. The weight is whatever is close at hand for the user – rocks, for example, or soil.
A power out socket will allow other devices to be charged and GravityLights can be daisy-chained together.
Though yet to launch, GravityLight generated widespread praise and worldwide media interest. It was hailed one of The 25 Best Inventions of the Year 2013 by Time Magazine.
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