“Dreaming Big” – ECE Prof. John Bowers and other COE Professors take on global issues

June 14th, 2017

children reading with light
Four COE professors dream big and devote enormous time, research and resources to bring modern technology to those who otherwise might not reap its benefits

ECE Professor John Bowers and CS Professors Chandra Krintz, Rich Wolski and Elizabeth Belding have worked at odd hours and in diverse locations — African villages, California farms and Native American reservations — pursuing ambitious projects to aid people around the world.

With assistance from UCSB undergraduate and graduate students and working with research partners and nonprofit organizations, these engineers practice altruism in ways that have produced affordable lights, sustainable farming tools and broader Wi-Fi access in remote rural areas.

“Since it began 50 years ago, the College of Engineering has been focusing on providing solutions for society’s needs,” said Rod Alferness, dean of the College of Engineering. “We continue that altruistic tradition to this day. The example that John, Chandra, Rich and Elizabeth set for future engineers and educators by looking outside our own boundaries and helping those in need is both essential and heartwarming.”

Night Lights – Professor John Bowers (African villages)

For 15 minutes every night, a crude kerosene lamp provides dim light for a young girl trying to complete her homework at a rickety table in a tin shack in an African slum. The fumes are noxious and the smoke scratches her eyes. If knocked over, the lamp likely would burst into a ball of fire, burn down the hut and perhaps injure — or even kill — those inside.

While inconceivable to most of us, Ghanaian scholar Osei Darkwa once described this true account of daily life in regions of Ghana — where there is no electricity — to electrical and computer engineering professor John Bowers during a meeting at UCSB.

Caught off guard, Bowers, who holds the Fred Kavli Chair in Nanotechnology at UCSB and serves as director of the campus’ Institute for Energy Efficiency, recalled how he began listing the college’s renowned accomplishments with energy efficiency, LED lights and solar cells. “I’m feeling pretty good, you know,” Bowers said, laughing. “We’re changing the world, right?” Not so much, according to Darkwa. No one in his country can afford flashlights, let alone high-tech gadgets.

After that discussion, Bowers, with the Institute for Energy Efficiency and the organization Engineers Without Borders, created the Luke Light, a simple solar-powered LED device. A second-generation model developed later has a USB connection for recharging electronic gadgets like mobile phones.

Teaming with Santa Barbara attorney Claude Dorais, Bowers then co-founded the nonprofit organization Unite to Light. Over the eight years since his first meeting with Darkwa, approximately 75,000 lamps have been distributed — to school children and to midwifes, who use them to deliver babies — in Ghana, South Africa, Haiti, Peru and elsewhere.

“It’s just stupid to burn things for lighting,” Bowers said. “It’s expensive buying wood, buying candles, buying kerosene. It’s bad for your health and it’s bad for climate change. You can see the impacts in places like in India where there is a lot of kerosene burning. You can see it in the greenhouse gas distributions.”

Solar power is free, he added. The lamp pays for itself in three months when compared to routinely buying kerosene. And when fully charged, the lamp can provide four or more hours of light.

“The thing we found in customer feedback was there’s a real need for charging mobile phones,” Bowers added, referring to the charger-equipped model. “Lots of people can afford mobile phones but it often costs a $1 to charge them.”

Long term, Bowers would like to see the operation — overseen by Unite to Light — become self-sustaining with better distribution partners. “We need to set up a network in Africa where we are shipping these things by the crate and people are buying them,” he said.

Selling for $10 and $20, respectively, the Luke Light and Luke Light with Lumen Charger have a long life expectancy, which is limited by the battery. The rechargeable battery in the Luke Light can be replaced for about $1. Many philanthropic organizations, such as Rotary International and Direct Relief International, buy the lights to distribute where needed. The devices also are sold directly to individuals online at through a buy one/donate one program.

Unite to Light hopes to distribute about 25,000 lights per year, said Megan Birney, the organization’s president. “We’ll see how that goes,” she added. “I kind of reach high and see what happens. I’d rather reach high and fall short than have missed an opportunity. There are still 1.2 billion people without access to electricity, so there really is a need.”

See the full UCSB Current article to learn more about the other projects:

  • SmartFarm Tools – Chandra Krintz and Rich Wolski (California farms)
  • Wireless Link – Elizabeth Belding (Native American reservations)

The UCSB Current – "Dreaming Big" (full article)

Unite to Light

Bowers' COE Profile