Every invention comes about through a process as winding as the life of the person who invented it. Consider the SolarPuff, a solar powered portable light in a collapsible fabric housing which, contrary to what the name suggests, inflates with a pull, not a puff of breath. The inventor, architect Alice Min Soo Chun, was born in Korea and raised in upstate New York. She has been accumulating the skills to build the SolarPuff from childhood but was not inspired to invent it until she became a mother.
Chun’s mother taught her how to sew and origami, the art of intricately folding paper into recognizable shapes. That stimulated a lifelong fascination with design, structure, and forms that led her to earn a masters in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. When her son, Quinn, now 17, was diagnosed with asthma, Chun focused on using solar technology to power inexpensive and clean indoor lighting for the millions of families worldwide suffering from the air pollution caused by reliance on kerosene lanterns.
There is an urgent need for clean lighting in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 3.8 million people a year, mostly women and young children, die from toxic kerosene fumes. Kerosene annually causes approximately 200,000 dwelling fires in South Africa. Poor lighting is associated with an increase in the number of assaults on women and children following natural disasters, while a 20% decrease in assault cases is associated with having a light in tent camps in those same circumstances.
Prompted by her son’s asthma and the vast need, Chun began the experiments that resulted in the SolarPuff, which performed well during three years of field testing in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake. In 2015, Chun initiated a Kickstarter campaign to launch Solight Design. She went on to win numerous awards including the US Patent Award for Humanity. Her solar lighting products have been exhibited at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
We asked Chun about her early life, and how motherhood and her career choices led her to become a pioneer in low cost solar lighting.
Your Mom taught you origami and to sew. Please share some memories of learning from your mother.
My mother was an artist and textile maker. My father was an architect and both my parents were adamant about music and art. So growing up, I saw them making everything from art to furnishings. We were marginalized as the only Asian family living in an all-white neighborhood outside of Syracuse. There were many days I walked home from school with a black eye or bruises from being bullied. So I used my imagination to occupy my lonely early years into drawing and origami as a way to pass the time.
Tell us how the struggle with your son’s asthma got you thinking about the links between air pollution and respiratory health.
After the diagnosis, we spent countless hours in cramped and crowded doctors’ offices. I was shocked to find out after my intense research of my son’s asthma that one of four kids in New York City has asthma. I started to think, what kind of toxic environment creates this outcome for our children? I wanted to know how we could move forward with this information and create some sort of solution — a worried mom does better research than the FBI. This is when I decided to focus on solar energy as a material.
It became an obsession. I was determined to make a difference but also educate on how our dependency on fossil fuel is the noose around our necks. If each of us contributed to the decline of the environment then we all as individuals have the power to heal the environment. My research, my love for my son and his future, and the belief that small things matter and that a collective community of like-minded concerned citizens has the power to change the world. My pedagogy at Columbia inspired this journey. At the start, the journey began with very little resources. It was a fight that I had taken on myself. I felt there was no choice but to use that light which I believe we all have. The light of our minds and our hearts. Digging deeper into the problem, I had to be creative with resources to design the prototypes with energy intelligence and decided to focus on the most powerful source of renewable energy — the power of the sun. The sun is our muse for design, but my biggest inspiration comes from seeing the impact and the light in people’s faces when they see our innovations. I could see no other way than to dedicate my profession to helping my son’s future, his children’s future, and the planet’s future.
How is your son’s health now?
Quinn is 17 now and doing well since his lungs are much stronger and larger, but he still suffers from extreme allergies and eczema, which is more and more common with children. It’s all interconnected.
Was it the earthquake in Haiti that motivated you to design the Solight?
Yes, I was already putting together solar panels and thin substrates for designing solar panels and LED Lights before the Haiti earthquake. I had worked on small prototypes, but after the Haiti earthquake, I made a more concerted effort to make a solar light that was inspired by the origami balloon. It was compact and folded flat for shipping, whereas other solar lights were hard and heavy and bulky. For disaster relief, it was important to make something light and compact for travel and distribution in areas where there may not be roads or any infrastructure.
Solights cost $30 on the Solight website and about $25 on Amazon. Are Solights affordable for the very poor people around the world living on a few dollars per day?
Our website currently features a “Give A Light” option to purchase a Solar Puff that our NGO Partners will distribute the purchased light to those most in need. There are different products that are different sizes and functions so there are different prices, depending on the type.
Solight would obviously be an enormous help in the aftermath of a disaster, but tell us about your vision to replace the routine use of kerosene for lighting with solar powered light. How significant is it for a family to go from no electric lighting to having Solights available after dark? What is possible for them that was not before?
With one small design idea, we have impacted over one million lives worldwide through our humanitarian efforts with our NGO partners, seeing children being able to read at night, seeing refugees traveling on foot for miles then being given one of our lights or a phone charger, empowered them and helped them survive under extreme and dangerous circumstances. We even saw Syrian refugees use our lights for a wedding in a tent camp. After the Haiti earthquake, we realized 2.6 billion people live without access to electricity. They use kerosene to light their world at night. Two million children die from the bad air, 200,000 house fires happen in South Africa alone, every year. When there is a natural disaster and there is no light, we see women and girls assaulted. Having light in the tent camps we saw a 20% decrease in cases of assault, the very next day.