The sheer fact that you’re reading this sentence means you have access to some form of technology, which you will likely have to charge tonight or tomorrow. Electricity may have become a commodity for many of us, but in some parts of the world, it remains a luxury.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 840 million people in the world lived with no access to electricity in 2016. And while notable progress has been made in recent years, (just six years prior, that number was 1.2 billion) well over half a million people will still be left without access to electricity in 2030.
This is where WaterLight comes in. Winner of the Latin America category in Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards, WaterLight’s mission is simple: turn ocean water into electricity.
Designed by Wunderman Thompson Colombia, a creative agency that partnered with Colombian renewable energy startup E-Dina, WaterLight is a handheld device that can be powered with nothing but ocean water. It was first tested in one of the poorest, most remote communities in South America. Like other developing countries, electricity access in Colombia has been rising steadily still 1990, but remote communities like the indigenous Wayuu people in the Guajira Peninsula—a vast swath of sea and sand located at the northernmost tip of South America—continue to live with very limited access to electricity.
In April this year, 50 WaterLights were sent to the Wayuu tribe. Children used them to study after dark. Fishermen used them to fish at night to help attract more fish. WaterLight can also be used to slowly charge a cell phone or a radio.
When the product launched, the cost ranged from $60 to $100 per light—steep in a country where the minimum wage is around $260 a month. E-Dina is now working on reducing that cost. Based on the original price tag, WaterLight was significantly more expensive than solar lights already on the market, but unlike solar lamps, which can take hours to charge, WaterLight provides an instant solution: after the lamp is filled with about two cups of ocean water, saltwater electrolytes react with the magnesium inside of the device, which generates instant electricity. “Solar energy is environmentally friendly but you need batteries for it to work,” says Pipe Ruiz Pineda, an executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson Colombia.
Once it’s charged, the light can last as many as 45 days depending on usage. And when the cycle ends, the water (it also works with freshwater mixed with salt) can be run through a carbon filter and made potable. Without a carbon filter, the water can still be used to water plants, and the residual salt can be used as a fertilizer.
The current version of WaterLight is designed for the Wayuu tribe: Traditional patterns are etched onto the wood and the strap that is used to carry it was created by craftswomen in the community. E-Dina is also in conversations with organizations around the world that can help distribute the project to other communities in need in places like Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Gabon, Somalia, and Syria, where access to energy is equally lacking but coastlines—and ocean water—abound.
In the meantime, E-Dina is working on a Kickstarter campaign to help scale the operations and make the manufacturing process more industrial. “We don’t have the culture of startups, we don’t have companies investing,” says Pineda. With additional funds, the company wants to research ways to produce the lamp at a lower cost. That includes creating a more efficient electrical circuit, reducing the size of the components inside, and scrapping custom details like the etched patterns and craft strap. “If we think on a global scale, the product will evolve to a more standard kind of design,” says Pineda. “A lot of things can get more efficient.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.