The settlement of Kathrada Park, South Africa is home to some of Claremont, Johannesburg’s poorest residents. Recognizing the need to improve the community’s living conditions and overall quality of life, eight members of the student chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB) at the University of Johannesburg, in collaboration with 11 high school learners and a science teacher from the UJ Metropolitan Academy (UJMA), developed an engineering solution known as the “Light (Sun in a Bottle) Project.”

The Litre of Light initiative, which aims to provide an ecologically sustainable and free-of-cost source of interior light to rooms in simple dwellings with tin roofs, was developed by Alfredo Moser of Brazil in 2002. He was given the challenge of connecting the community to electrical power and a lighting system to significantly reduce the number of household fires by introducing an alternative to candles or paraffin-based options.

As the name suggests, “Light (Sun in a Bottle)” involves filling a glass bottle with water and suspending it on the roof of a shack to provide a working, energy-efficient lighting system. In the evening, a small solar cell is fixed at the top of the bottle. This solar cell is connected to a circuit that charges a rechargeable battery, which then powers small numbers of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) fixed inside the bottle. With a simple flick of a switch, the LEDs, with the aid of the refraction property of the water, can shed enough light to illuminate a household.

The students also worked together with facilitators to fulfill another essential need: charging technological devices. By applying engineering concepts, they successfully designed and created an electrical/electronic system to charge batteries from solar energy, which in turn drives the relevant circuitry to turn on LEDs and charges low-voltage devices such as cell phones. These outputs can be turned on/off at will by the user, depending on the energy stored.

After successfully installing these systems, the team of engineering students took their project one step further by conducting workshops to train selected Kathrada Park community members how to design, develop, and maintain the Litre of Light solar glass bottle bulbs. By teaching them how to operate the project and carry out general service, the students were able to transfer ownership to the community members and give them a new level of self-sustainability.

According to project leader Mohamed Sameer Hoosain, a postgraduate Masters student in electrical engineering and an IEEE graduate student member at the University of Johannesburg, the “Light (Sun in a Bottle)” initiative allowed students to gain real-world experience in engineering. It also helped them develop and sustain partnerships with the Kathrada Park community through the implementation of a human-centered solution to an everyday development problem.

“With technology for humanity in mind, there is room for vast improvement concerning engineering in South Africa—be it at the tertiary or working environment,” he said. “The EPICS in IEEE concept contributes towards taking engineering to the broader community (at the same time teaching them and making them self-sustainable), as well as technical/professional outcomes in preparing students for careers in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Hoosain added that he will never forget seeing all the bright smiles on the high school learners’ faces as they worked diligently on their project sections—or witnessing the beautiful tears of joy the community members had upon receiving the gift of light from the student engineering team.