But this is not the case for a large proportion of the world’s population. In fact, there are 1.6 billion people in the world without access to electricity – almost a quarter of the planet.

Little Sun is a practical and affordable source of solar-powered light that aims to improve the lives of people around the globe. Launched at the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa earlier this year, it is the result of two years of development by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederick Ottesen. They also co-founded a company called Little Sun, based in Berlin, Germany.

“I have always considered light to be more than just something that illuminates things. Life and light are actually inseparable, and, for some time now, I have wanted to work not just with light in museums and exhibitions, but to do something where I use light in a more ambitious way that is integrated into the world,” says Eliasson.

“What is interesting about solar energy is that it takes something that is accessible to all of us – the sun – and makes it available to each of us.”

The idea for Little Sun came about during a discussion about solar energy with his friend Ottesen, a strong believer in sustainable technologies, who at the time was working on a solar plane. Eliasson liked the idea of capturing the energy of the sun via a solar panel and then releasing it again through an LED light, an idea that just a few years ago would have been prohibitive due to cost and technology.

From the start, the aim was to make the light both a functional and beautiful product. “It was important for us to make a spiritual, characteristic form as well as a carefully engineered, multifunctional and efficient design,” comments Eliasson.

Although various designs were experimented with, the end result is a shape that resembles a bright yellow sun or flower, both of which carry positive associations. It can be used as either a hand-held, table or pendant lamp and is suitable for both inside and outdoors.

“There are a few important design features, such as the adaptable frame. This was driven by our desire to help local economies by encouraging local talent to produce customised mounting devices,” says Eliasson. “The frame also shades the inner parts of the lamp, increases surface area and improves airflow to keep the batteries as cool as possible.”

Little Sun is made from Luran S, a highly weather-and-UV-resistant ASA plastic from BASF. The powerful Osram LED runs at 0.5 Watt and emits a light equivalent to a 40 W incandescent light bulb. Three Ni-MH batteries and a 60 x 60 millimetre mono crystalline solar panel enable Little Sun to produce five hours of light following a five-hour charge in the sun. Overall, Little Sun will last for three years before it needs a battery replacement.

The challenge during the development process was to use high-quality components but still make it cost-efficient to manufacture so that the overall cost would not be out reach for those who need it most. However, it is estimated that Little Sun will be cheaper and less hazardous than the common fuel used for lighting in off-grid regions – kerosene. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), inhaling emissions of a kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes in a single day.

“Right now people living off the electrical grid pay 300 times more for light than people who have access to electricity and incandescent light bulbs. With Little Sun we deliver 10 times more light at one-tenth of the cost of using a common single-wick kerosene lamp,” says Ottesen.

Little Sun can be used for a wide variety of tasks, such as cooking, eating, reading, doing homework and even earning money, as was discovered when Little Sun was tested with prospective users. A young vegetable merchant in Addis Ababa was able to keep his stand open for longer in the market due to the light emitted from Little Sun, enabling him to take advantage of evening trade.

Being a work-of-art also encourages those who readily have access to light to purchase Little Sun because they deem it to be a desirable object. By purchasing one for €20 means that those who really need it can purchase it for far less.

In order to draw more attention to the product, the company has embarked on a publicity campaign inviting people to join the Little Sun community via Facebook and Twitter. Little Sun is also being showcased at a number of galleries and exhibitions.

“We are working hard to make the problem of unequal distribution of energy access into a point of public discussion and getting people to engage with this issue; this means creating a buzz through exhibitions, on social media, print and televisual media, and involving people in building a distribution system for the lamps,” says Eliasson.

A recent exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, which ran from 28 July to 23 September, proved very successful, not least of all because of its ‘blackouts’ on Saturday nights in which visitors were invited to look at works of art for two hours in the dark using only the light of the Little Suns. Similarly, at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened on 29 August and runs until 25 November, there are three works of art on display inspired by Little Sun.

All of this will hopefully allow Eliasson to reach the goal he has set out: “Little Sun is a wedge that opens up the urgent discussion about bringing sustainable energy to all from the perspective of art.”

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