Battling climate change is something that needs to be done on every scale. Whether there are massive disruptions worldwide, on industrial scale or small improvements in someone’s personal life: they all matter. That is what Swiss startup hiLyte Power proves. They’ve invented a battery that is powered by simple, easy to obtain consumables that put no strain on the planet. HiLyte’s CEO Briac Barthes (pictured in the middle) is currently in Tanzania, where he’s aiming to change the lives of poor families, one battery at a time.
HiLyte Power makes batteries, but not your average lithium ones. The product they’ve developed instead uses a piece of paper, a simple iron plate and some iron salt mixed with water. That’s all their battery needs to produce five hours of light. The battery even comes equipped with a USB-port, so people can charge their phone. Once the battery runs out, the consumables can be discarded without putting a strain on the environment. And new consumables are easy and cheap to obtain. This allows poor families in third world countries to stay connected or to light their home in a cheap and sustainable way.
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Off the grid
“People in Tanzania really like it”, Briac Barthes explains over the telephone. He’s on the ground in Tanzania to monitor the usage of the device and to start marketing efforts. “We still have our R&D in Switzerland, but the product is focused mainly on the poorest families in Africa.” The country has many people living off the grid, not able to afford their own lightning. The alternatives for light and power are either impractical, expensive or polluting.
“Our battery casing costs 12 dollars That includes a light bulb. That is an investment for people here”, explains Barthes. “The consumables needed to run the battery cost 12 cents. Those are good for five hours of energy.” Compared to the alternatives, that’s a pretty good deal. “They’re about the same price as cheap solar lamps available here. But this battery will always work, also at night or after a cloudy day. The battery is also cheaper than kerosene lamps that are often used. They’ll cost 20 cents a day for light. Charging a phone will cost people an extra 15 cents.”
Another advantage over the often used kerosene light is that hiLyte’s solution is ecologically friendly, using only regular paper, iron and iron salt. Barthes: “The iron salt is waste from steel manufacturing. It is used to clean water, but there is a lot left that we can use.” After the battery runs out, the iron salt can easily be discarded, for instance in the toilet or outhouse. “It’s a bit too acidic to just put it in the ground and use as fertilizer. But if you mix it with ashes from firewood, it takes away this acidity, and you can get rid of it anywhere you want safely.”
The idea for the battery running on consumables comes from current hiLyte Power CTO David Lambelet, who developed a prototype during his master studies at Berkeley University. Barthes: “It was a very small battery, but after his study he continued to develop it in his own time. During one of my stays in Tanzania, I noticed people were looking for an alternative for solar lamps. This made me think of David, who developed a prototype with Jonathan Fiorentini, the other co-founder of hiLyte Power. He sent it and people really liked the idea.”
Experience, development, business plan
However, the product itself held too little power and wasn’t ready for market yet. So after founding the company, first thing to do was to gain experience, develop the product and work on a business plan. During this time the company participated in several competitions, one of them the Climate Launchpad from EIT Climate-KIC. “This brought us in contact with other entrepreneurs that battle climate change and gave us the possibility to share our difficulties.”
“When confronted with the challenge of climate change, there are three types of people. The ones that just continue doing business like before. The ones that throw everything out and go all green. And the ones that try to use their entrepreneurial spirit to battle climate change. We, along with other startups in the Climate Launchpad, are the third category.”
Meanwhile, hiLyte Power is running a pilot to test its battery in real life. “We gave away a bunch of prototypes to test them. It’s interesting to see some unintended effects of the battery. One family that is particularly poor, couldn’t afford to have dinner every night. Now that they can illuminate their home, people from the village stop by and bring them food. We also saw one girl using the light in the battery to study at night. We didn’t think of these things before we started, but they really make you more motivated as you go along.”
HiLyte will need that motivation going forward. After their initial crowdfunding campaign in 2019, raising over €50.000 , they are currently looking to raise more. “We’re currently in contact with several angel investors and are hoping to close a round by the end of the year. In January we’ll start a new pilot with a new version of our batteries.” But in the meantime, Barthes has to keep a business running as well. In order to get some revenue faster while completing their goal, the company also innovates in the business model to bring good quality solar lamps to people who couldn’t afford them. That will enable hiLyte to get on the market and generate profit even before their green, clean and affordable battery is ready to hit the market.”
Image credit: Murielle Gerber