Unite to Light: John Bowers

by Megan Birney Rudert from United States

Access to light is something that many of us take for granted every day. We flip a switch and a light turns on; we open a laptop and the world is available to us. But almost a billion people across the globe live without access to energy. For engineer, researcher, and educator John Bowers, a chance encounter with educators from Ghana in 2009 opened his eyes to this often overlooked problem, and more importantly, a unique opportunity to make a difference. 

Bowers’ educational and research career began at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) where he joined as and remains a professor in electrical and computer engineering. In 2008, he founded the Institute of Energy Efficiency (IEE) to reduce energy demand and, consequently, the consumption of energy resources and greenhouse gasses. The research institute has since gone on to become a key driver of significant energy efficiency advances in research breakthroughs and commercialization of these advances. 

When the opportunity arose, then, to apply some of this innovative research to helping those in need, Bowers was ready and willing. In 2009, two Ghanaians: Pastor Kofi Fosuhene and Dr. Osei Darkwa came to UCSB. During their visit, they explained the health problems and financial hardships that arise from the use of kerosene-dependent reading light; half of their students could not finish their homework because they did not have a light to study at night. Their question, in sum, was whether the institute could design an affordable, efficient, high-powered solar reading light. As the director of UCSB’s IEE, Bowers harnessed the potential of their work on high-efficiency LED lights and high-efficiency solar cells, applying it to this pressing issue of lighting inequity. Working with UCSB’s Engineers Without Borders, Bowers and the IEE team designed, developed, and began distributing the original solar light in 2010 in conjunction with Dr. Darkwa. 

That same year, Bowers realized the global nature of the problem that Dr. Darkwa and Pastor Fosuhene had introduced him to and launched a new nonprofit called Unite to Light to help bring light to people across the world. Operating out of sunny Santa Barbara, Unite to Light was one of the first nonprofits to manufacture and provide low-cost solar light and power to those without electricity worldwide. Bowers continues to serve as Board Chair 14 years later. 

While education remains a pillar for the organization, Unite to Light has grown to support midwives and community healthcare workers, refugees, and victims of disasters and homelessness. With the improvement-driven mind of an engineer, Bowers has led the organization to strive for continued advancements in technology, partnerships and reach. In consultation with their distribution partners, Unite to Light has redesigned the original light (called the Luke Light) to be waterproof, more durable, and enhance the battery life to last seven or more years. Based on partner feedback, Unite to Light has also added a second product to their line: a solar powered battery bank and charger. This Charger supplies power to cell phones and small medical devices, as well as almost any electronic device with a USB power cord. It enables midwives to access training and emergency support, it also is used by people experiencing houselessness to connect to services like healthcare, housing and job support. 

As of 2024, under the leadership of President Megan Birney Rudert, Unite to Light has provided over 230,000 lights and chargers to people in 80 countries. The setting of the sun should not mean the end of learning, living, and saving lives. Thanks to the work of Dr. Bowers, Mrs. Birney Rudert, Dr. Darkwa, Pastor Fosuhene, and many other members of Unite to Light and their partners across the globe, individuals and families are able to focus on their education, health, and wellbeing, instead of worrying about fetching firewood and paying for kerosene. Together we light the world.  

168113Bowers (left) with Unite to Light Board and Staff: Bowers, Dawn Mitcham, Claude Dorais, Megan Birney Rudert, and Suzanne CrossUnite to Light 

Related Links

Unite to Light

UCSB IEE: John Bowers

UCSB Institute for Energy Efficiency

John Bowers Wikipedia

UCSB Engineers Without Borders


Honors and awards that John Bowers has received:

Central Coast Innovation Award (2017)

National Academy of Inventors (2015)

UCSB Faculty Research Lecturer (2012) 

OSA/IEEE Tyndall Award (2012)

Kavli Chair for Nanotechnology (2009)

OSA Nick Holonyak, Jr. Award (2009)

ACE Award for Most Promising Technology (2007)

IEEE Transactions on Components and Packaging Technologies Best Paper of 2006 Award (2007)

Discover Magazine list of top 100 achievements (2006)

PC World Technical Excellence Award for Best Semiconductor Technology (2006)

National Academy of Engineering (2005)

South Coast Business and Technology Entrepreneur of the Year (2001)

Optical Society of America (OSA), Fellow (2002) 

American Physical Society, Fellow (1996)

IEEE Leos William Streifer Award (1996)

Board of Governors, IEEE Lasers and Electro-optics Society (1995)

IEEE, Fellow (1994)

IEEE, Distinguished Lecturer (1992)

NSF, Presidential Young Investigator (1988)

Page created on 4/9/2024 4:44:16 PM

Last edited 4/22/2024 6:08:53 PM

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