Innovation & Design

Solar Star


The Solar Lampion is an aesthetically pleasing light that runs entirely on solar energy. It's a shining example of technology and design

I recently moved into a top-floor apartment and have been looking for solar lamps that I could use on the roof deck, which is bathed in sunlight all day—a never-ending source of free energy. I wanted a lamp that would store power during the day and release it at night, when I may be having dinner with friends or reading a book in the evening's breeze. Yes, I know solar lamps don't come cheap, but at least there's no need to run wiring, and maintenance requirements are low.

What I found was initially pretty disappointing—uninteresting and tacky plastic or metal objects made to be tucked away in garden corners and along walkways, installed on posts or pedestals, or mounted on wall fixtures, making their presence felt only when they lit up.

Moreover, most of the available options featured only a small area of solar cells, and hence a relatively modest battery duration. When I found ones with bigger solar-cell surfaces, they looked like upside-down shovels. While there are now several LED lamps by world-class designers—such as Yves Behar's Leaf and Richard Sapper's Halley—solar lighting seemed stuck in the realm of engineering.

Cellular Design

Then I discovered Damian O'Sullivan's prototype for a "Solar Lampion" and I'm wondering how fast he can get it into production. I want one. It's the first example I know of great design applied to solar lamps. The pictures above right show how it looks. The design is visibly inspired by natural organic structures such as pine cones, but it is somehow reminiscent also of Chinese paper lampions—which he has explored in a great many successive sketches that he made available to me.

The most innovative characteristic of the design is that instead of combining a lamp with a solar cell, he has created a lamp made of solar cells. This not only provides a large surface for capturing the sun's energy but gives the lamp its distinctive look.

The lamp's 30 off-the-shelf, 25-sq. cm solar cells are mounted on injection-molded plastic crowns stacked on top of each other. Each crown holds six cells inclined towards the sun, and is rotated 30 degrees from the layer above, creating the faceted cylindrical form that ensures the lampion will catch the sun's rays no matter which direction they are coming from. Each cell is then coupled with a white LED tucked under the frame along the cell's top edge. The rechargeable battery, which stores the energy, is hidden inside this frame, which is otherwise empty. And a simple handle allows it to be carried easily or hung from a tree branch.

Thing of Beauty

A 38-year-old Franco-Irish designer living in the Netherlands, O'Sullivan has created bags and tie racks for French luxury brand Hermès, tech gadgets for Dutch manufacturer Philips, and shoes for Spanish brand Camper, among others. He said during a phone interview last week that in its current stage, the Lampion can collect enough energy on a sunny day to give light for 24 hours.

Not only is it a beautiful object, it's the first lamp design that makes the solar cells an integral part of the form. It also suggests that solar lighting—that "alternative" technology typically housed in ungainly forms—is starting to be considered a dignified field for cutting-edge designers.

Bruno Giussani is a Swiss writer, tech entrepreneur, conference host and the author of "Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet." He blogs at http://www.LunchOverIP.com. For BusinessWeek.com Giussani writes the monthly EuroScan column, discussing innovation in Europe.

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