During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, I was living in a college dormitory in New York City. Days before the storm hit, my roommate told me we had to prepare—get water bottles, non-perishables, flashlights. I ignored her, planning study groups and rehearsals, and went on as usual.
We weren’t used to superstorms in the Northeast, just occasional snowstorms with afternoon-long blackouts at most. For a few hours, we read by candlelight, we told stories. It wasn’t long enough for food to spoil. It wasn’t long enough for us to have to shower in the dark. It wasn’t the end of the world.
No one I knew in New York City thought Sandy was going to affect us in the way that it did. The university closed for a week, during which all of lower Manhattan was dark and deserted. Our dormitory was used as an evacuation zone, where my fellow students camped out in the hallways, by whose emergency lights we played cards. The rooms themselves were pitch black, and my childhood fear of darkness crept back in. Our other roommate had evacuated uptown to her parents’ apartment, where it was still light. Everyone left had nowhere else to go.
Imagine being in total darkness. It’s disorienting, it’s scary, and to over 1.6 billion people in the world, it’s everyday life.
Imagine being in total darkness. It’s disorienting, it’s scary, and to over 1.6 billion people in the world, it’s everyday life. Not only for people whose homes are devastated by natural disasters, but for impoverished people in every country including our own.
For those that do not have electricity, kerosene lamps have always been the answer. Though these lamps are effective in giving light, they come with some serious repercussions. Not only is kerosene a dangerous and toxic fossil fuel, but a typical person living in Sub Saharan Africa can spend 30% of his or her income on kerosene. Kerosene not only kills the environment, but it also kills around two million children per year. Considering the Butterfly Effect, Alice Chun, co-founder and CEO of Solight Design™ told me, that means widespread kerosene lantern use affects climate in the United States as well.
A natural solution is one that shouldn’t come to us as a surprise: solar lighting. The figurative light went off in Chun’s head when she took her son to the doctor for his asthma. She thought about how when she was a kid, there weren’t as many children sick with asthma and needing to be pumped with steroids. Concerned about her son, she did some research. She found that one-fourth of kids in New York City had asthma, which is 40% higher than in rest of the country. Why? Carbon emissions and air pollution were major contributing factors. She found that one lightbulb was responsible for 90 pounds of carbon emissions, and that 60% of the GDP was contributable to energy consumption. In order to help people like her son, she wanted to take her design expertise beyond “designing kitchens for people who didn’t even cook.” She wanted to develop a new, portable solar light, that could be used all over the world.
As a Korean immigrant, Chun’s design interest began with fabric. She sewed her own clothes and also did origami. Her father, an architect, also inspired her to follow in his footsteps. She came to the United States and began teaching at Columbia University, the Univeristy of Pennsylvania, and now teaches Design and Material Culture at Parsons the New School for Design. While at Penn, she often took her students on community outreach projects in underprivileged neighborhoods, where they helped design and build gardens with children. “A lot of kids didn’t even know what an architect was,” she told me.
As an architect and materials professor, Chun is always on the forefront of new sustainable materials that are lighter, stronger, and faster than before. As Chun was teaching her students how to hone their design craft in New York City, an earthquake in Haiti shook more than just the country in 2010. It was the call to action that Chun needed to turn her studio into the birthplace of Solight Design and the SolarPuff.
While typical emergency response items are utilitarian, Chun wanted her portable solar light to both “sit beautifully on a table in Nigeria and a table in the Hamptons.” Thus, the SolarPuff was born. Inspired by the origami Chun did as a child and later on with her son, as well as the thin film substrates she works with, the SolarPuff’s folding design is different than others which require mouth-contact via an inflatable air nozzle. Knowing that the inflation process could exacerbate the spread of highly contagious diseases in impoverished or decimated areas, she designed the puff to be collapsible and expandable with just a pull. Its fabric is sustainable, durable, flexible, and water-resistant and can pack flat to a quarter of an inch. All it needs is 8 hours to charge in the sun, and then can last for 8 to 12 hours.
It’s affordable, too. Since it is lighter in weight than others of its kind, there are reduced shipping costs. Also, the cost of LEDs have gone down dramatically within the past decade. Fifteen years ago, Chun told me, it wouldn’t have been possible to create an affordable and efficient solar light. But now, the technology is more advanced than it’s ever been.
When she launched the design about two years ago, she started a Kickstarter and raised $456,000 within the first year. Right now, SolarPuffs are used in 20 countries worldwide, and sold in 120 retail stores. There’s competition in the field, too, but Chun’s eye for design and practicality make her portable solar light a revolution in sustainable energy. Now, it’s only up to the rest of the world to take notice.
In our forthcoming shift in political climate, I wonder how the environment will stack up, priority-wise. With terrorism, immigration, healthcare, and education as top issues concerning Americans on the U.S. homefront, how will solar energy take precedence? The way to do it is by spreading the message and the facts. The environment is one thing that we all have in common. There has been a significant increase in hurricanes and natural disasters in our midst in recent years, with climate change as the catalyst. The U.S. government has an initiative set in place to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, but progress is slow to come. Light is one of our most important metrics of modernity, but the side-effects of carbon emissions can be nearly as devastating as no light at all.
Chun says what keeps her going is her son. Whether you are a young boy suffering from asthma, or a Syrian refugee living in Greece who needs to see at night, the SolarPuff is designed to be an immediate step forward. In the end, she says, “neither one company nor one country has the ability to solve climate change.” It’s going to take a lot, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from continuing the mission. Chun owes the SolarPuff’s success to collaboration with her team, and a shared vision to build awareness.
After days spent camping out in my dark dormitory back in 2012, I fled to my parents’ house in the suburbs. They received their power back, and welcomed me to stay as long as I had to. I had warmth again, light again. And in that moment I never appreciated it more. That’s what the SolarPuff aims to do: be that comfortable invitation to see again, whether you’ve been in the dark all day, for weeks, or for years; whether you just need a night light to go to bed, or are camping in Mount Rainier National Park; whether you need decorations for your upcoming beach wedding, or you’re having rooftop cocktail party. The SolarPuff is both beautiful and functional, bringing the power of the sun to each hand, and heart, that it touches.
Every time you order a three-pack of SolarPuffs, one will be donated to one of Solight Design’s partners. To donate light to those in need at Chun’s non-profit design collaborative, Focus on Architecture Art Research Making (FAARM), click here. For more information on the SolarPuff, and how solar energy can make a difference for all of us, click here.