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University of Edinburgh launches a solar-powered lighting system to reduce electronic and plastic waste in low income countries

Efforts to secure access to clean, efficient lighting in places without mains electricity could be helped by a new technology designed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science.

1)	Solar What?! Light and Home Hub, Image Credit: University of Edinburgh, 2018

The Solar What?! is a small portable lamp built from recycled plastics and ethically-sourced electronic components. It can be opened and repaired with non-specialist tools, can be charged from a wide range of second-hand solar photovoltaic modules and is powered using widely available mobile phone batteries. 

The SolarWhat!? was launched this week in Madrid at an international technology convention that showcased new technologies built for the circular economy. 

Designed by researchers from the University’s School of Social and Political Science in partnership with Cramasie, an Edinburgh-based design agency, the Solar What?! has been built to promote responsible production and reduce electronic waste in the global solar industry.

Annual sales of off-grid solar lighting products are estimated to reach 70 million units and $USD 8 billion in revenue by 2022. But market growth is also set to create new challenges around electronic and plastic waste, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia countries where demand is high. 

In 2017 an estimated 26.2 million off-grid solar devices went out of use, creating large amounts of plastic waste and leading to the improper disposal of lithium ion batteries, according to a report published earlier this year by World Bank’s Lighting Global Programme.

The Solar What?! device demonstrates how reductions in electronic waste from the off-grid solar industry can be achieved through simply changes in product design. 

Solar What?! is based on five years of research into off-grid solar energy technologies led by the University of Edinburgh. 

Solar manufacturers and distributors argue that centralised recycling schemes provide the best solution to electronic waste in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. 

But research published this October in the journal Energy Research and Social Science challenges the consensus, arguing that the solution to electronic solar waste lies in designing products around existing cultures of repair.

Ad Hoc Solar Repair, Goudoubou Refugee Camp, Burkina Faso, Image Credit, University of Edinburgh 2018

Dr Jamie Cross, a Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, who 

led the research and helped design the Solar What?!, said: “When solar things break down in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia people try to fix them. Solar-powered lighting devices that cannot be fixed in the context of use are

effectively disposable technologies. But when solar-powered devices can be taken apart and repaired locally, they sustain local economies, reduce electronic waste, and provide clean energy for longer. Repair should be as important as sunlight in a responsible and sustainable solar industry.”

The Solar What?! aims to promote transitions to sustainable, low-carbon economy by changing the way basic solar-powered devices are designed and built. 

This month the University of Edinburgh signed a partnership agreement with the international charity SolarAid to support the development of the Solar What?! and to promote sustainability in the off-grid solar industry.

In January 2019 Solar Aid will make the first batch of Solar What?! devices available to schoolchildren and their families in Zambia, as part of a novel light library scheme. 

Solar What?! has received strategic funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council.

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