November 06, 2015, BY Christina Masciere Wallace

In some parts of the world, a lack of infrastructure and access to electricity makes it difficult for schoolchildren to study indoors after dark. Professor Amal Kabalan, electrical & computer engineering, has developed a backpack with a solar-powered light that charges by day and allows students to do schoolwork in the safety of their homes at night. Her idea won a top award at an international conference, which provided seed funding for the project.

Q: How did you get the idea for a solar-powered backpack light?

A: The idea for the backpack came from an article I read on BBC News. It talked about a number of students in Guinea who have not been doing well in school. Those students come from middle-class families that were doing fine, but because of political strife that happened in Guinea, the students stopped having access to electric power at night.

Q: How much will the backpack cost?

A: My aim is to have the backpack cost less than $40. That's why I'm doing testing to make sure that the equipment that I buy performs as needed. It took a couple of iterations to get the right solar-panel sizing. By sizing, I mean how much power it produces to charge a battery with the right capacity to power an LED for three hours. I'm assuming that students will get bored after three hours of studying, so that was the set line.

Q: How difficult is the backpack to operate and maintain?

A: In terms of connecting the LED or removing the LED and charging the solar panel, it's very easy. The summer student that worked with me basically developed a manual that's all based on pictures. The assumption is that the person who is doing the troubleshooting might not know English or might not be able to read.

Q: What is the next step in getting these backpacks into target areas?

A: Right now I have 15 different solar backpacks that have all of the solar panels needed and all of the LED lights. I want to test them in the field. My objective is to give them to students living abroad and see how they interact with the product. I'm planning to work with the nonprofit Center for Civic Engagement & Community Services at American University in Beirut, Lebanon. They work mainly with refugees that come from different areas and stay in Lebanon. I think the product will fit nicely with their activities.