Businessmen Ignoring Entrepreneurs

In my recent article about Jack Ma [stderr] I was horrified by the way the camera and interview format dwelt on the interesting and important rich guys, and pretty much edited out a young woman who was also on the panel. Who is she? What has she done?

Aisa Mijeno is the founder of a startup to make sustainable lighting systems. Sustainable Alternative Lighting (SALt) – the lamp will run for 8 hours on 2 tablespoons of salt and a glass of water. Now, OK, some of us did that reaction in high school, too, but having it productized and simplified is pretty good, and it puts out a lot of light thanks to state of the art LEDs.

NOT this.

I hadn’t thought about this until I read a few articles about the SALt lamp, but in a lot of the developing world, the alternatives are oil, kerosene, candles – fire, in other words. The failure mode if you knock a SALt lamp over is pretty good (splash!) compared to a kerosene lamp in a wooden building or a tent. Do not confuse Aisa’s SALt lamp with a Himalayan Salt Lamp [snopes] – it’s not going to cure your warts, but you could probably hammer a Himalayan Salt Lamp to pieces and light your shack with it for a year, in a SALt lamp.

They’re doing a business model that has been successful in other markets: for every lamp that is purchased, one is given away to people who need light.

I understand why she effusively thanked Obama and Ma for being on a panel with her, and for (sort of) (trying) to speak with her as an equal. But they are not peers – no, not by a long shot. I am sure it was a big moment for her, and I do not want to detract from that, at all. But, to help her understand a little better, I have prepared this useful reality check chartoid:


Aisa Mijeno Jack Ma Barack Obama
Kills People
No No Authorized the killing of thousands, oversaw the destruction of Libya, ordered invasion of Syria, covered up the Bush Administration’s use of torture
Is very rich No Yes, very, very Yes
Has whole life ahead of them Yes No No
Lets there be light Yes No No
Starts companies Yes Yes No
(higher is better)
3 2 1 (#1: -1 points)

I will say this for Jack Ma, he donated 2% of his shares in Alibaba to a philanthropic trust (I don’t know how it works in China but that’s probably a tax shelter [stderr]) – which is something like $2 billion of his $40 billion net worth. With that kind of money, it would be hard to not make a positive difference in some people’s lives. Apparently, when Ma did that, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet did likewise.

Aisa’s got her life ahead of her and seems to want to make a positive difference. And it’s great to see her speaking on stage – I wish her a life of accomplishments; she’s a “will be” and they’re “has been”s. She should remember what someone said: you’ve got to look forward, not back.

------ divider ------

I know I’m being unfair to Barack Obama. He’s a complicated character who has done some good things and some really horrible things. My net assessment of him is that I’d hit the brakes if someone pushed him in front of my truck. I mostly did the breakdown to illustrate one of the problems of evaluating people: if you accept that certain things – like starting a war of aggression – are bad, bad things, then it’s impossible to stack that person up against someone who hasn’t done anything remotely near that bad. Aisa could be a complete failure in her lighting project and in summary she’s a better human being than Obama as long as she doesn’t start any aerial bombardments of cities. Ditto Jack Ma. Ma could be a horrible person (actually, he seems pretty personable, but with current American politics, the bar for billionaires has been set pretty low) but as long as he doesn’t get thousands of people killed, he’s ahead of the game.

I also have fun cooking charts. If Ray Kurzweil can do it, so can I!


  1. Johnny Vector says

    Um… you can’t get power from water and salt. I don’t know what reaction you did in high school, but I guarantee you didn’t get power from salt and water, any more than you can make a good soup with just water and a stone. I’m guessing (because the SALt website has an infinite JavaScript to content ratio) that the salt and water are an electrolyte for some reaction between two metals or possibly organic compounds. If you just have to add salt and water, then the power source is already contained in the part you buy. I.e. it’s a (non-rechargeable) battery. We already know how to make those.

    F-, would not invest.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Johnny Vector is correct. It is the dissimilar metals for the cathode and anode which make the reaction work. A solar cell-powered lamp would last longer.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Lemon battery
    A lemon battery is a simple battery often made for the purpose of education. Typically, a piece of zinc metal (such as a galvanized nail) and a piece of copper (such as a penny) are inserted into a lemon and connected by wires…

    In some examples, the lemon may be replaced by a potato, or salt water, but it the differing electronegativity of the metal electrodes that makes it work.

  4. Siobhan says

    @Johnny Vector

    It’s for the developing world. Marcus already pointed out the critical selling point–highly flammable dwellings are no longer put at risk. What is remarkable is not the chemistry but the way it’s being applied, as an alternative to oil lamps.

  5. says

    Johnny Vector@#1:
    Salt, water, pennies. I’m sure there’s a penny (or whatever) in the lamp. Like I said, it’s not rocket science, but it’s convenient and safe and the materials are plentiful. Solar means you need batteries. Hand cranked means hand cranking.

  6. John Morales says

    Um. I feel I should note that I take the point of this post, which is not about the invention itself.

  7. Nomad says

    To say that this light runs on salt water is a little like saying that my car runs on air. More true, really, since it does consume the oxygen in air. Neither salt or water is consumed in the reaction. This lantern is most likely going to run by consuming aluminum (plus oxygen from the air), although other electrode materials are options. It’s only as sustainable as the supply of metal that’s going to be effectively burned up to create electricity. In another story I found Aisa talking about how the communities in the Philippines that she intended these lanterns for have three readily available resources. Salt, water, and rice. She doesn’t mention metal rods designed specifically for her lantern. But of course she doesn’t mention them at all, because they kill the narrative of this being sustainable lighting.

    Solar would cost only a little more (I’m guessing here, since she hasn’t given any price information yet, actually with the prices of similar products I’ve seen online a solar solution could be cheaper) and last many times longer than those metal rods. She claims half a year lifespan, but that means either a huge rod or a miniscule light output.

    But it doesn’t get the crowdfunding dollars like the gimmick of “it runs on water!!!!”. It’s not true, of course, but this is a product relying upon naive, well meaning consumers. It’s also going to be taking money that could have gone to practical assistance projects. People are going to be buying this thinking they’re providing magic lanterns to people in need, when what they’re really providing are toy lights with less than a year’s lifespan.

    I think she’s a bit more of a traditional entrepreneur than you give her credit for.

  8. komarov says

    I think the critics are being a tad unfair on the SALt lamp.

    First off, their website says it is ‘activated’ by salt water and emphasises there is a consumable electrode. They also mention straight away the life expectancy. That’s all fine, as far as I’m concerned. (Their website does manage to combine all the webdesign gimmicks I hate most but one endeavours to look past that for now.)

    You could still quibble about ‘sustainability’ but this is true for any power source. Everything wears out eventually. To get something ‘sustainable’ you generally aim for a relatively long lifespan. You may also have to ignore some more uncomfortable parts of your product’s life-cycle.
    For example, solar is sustainable: It can last a really long time and generate lots and lots of power.* That sustainability just overlooks a few things, e.g. the batteries, the energy spent manufacturing it, and disposal. Good panels may last a few decades but at the end of that you still end up with a pile of electronic waste which is decidedly unsustainable. Most likely it’ll end up in some third world country, being ‘recycled’ by desperately poor people who may end up being poisoned in the process. Over those decades a battery-dependent solar system will also go through a lot of those, and batteries aren’t known for their green-ness either. Don’t get me wrong: I like solar. It’s just that it’s all too easy to ignore the strings attached to ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ energy.

    Ultimately, SALt may not be ‘as good’ as, for example, solar lamps. Maybe they don’t last as long or are not as cheap. But that doesn’t make them a bad idea or some sort of marketing scam. They can still fill a niche by being a reliable and safe light source that doesn’t depend on solar. A solar lamp can run out at the wrong time without any possibility to change or recharge it.** At that point it would be nice to have another lamp lying around that can be fired up easily. Kerosene would work, but so would SALt, which could easily become the better option (cheaper, safer?). Having multiple options for similar applications – here: safe, reliable lights without an electrical grid – is always important and useful. And since the manufacturers seem to be up front about the limitations of their device I don’t see any issues there, either.

    *Addendum: For context, I should mention that I tend to think in terms of solar powerplants or rooftop installations (scale)
    **This would be my first concern with a solar lamp: it’s x years old, how long will the battery last at this point?

  9. says

    Unfortunately, it seems to be easier to play to the General Public’s woeful ignorance of thermodynamics by calling this a “saltwater-powered lamp” than it is actually to educate them. The idea of FREE ENERGY!!!!! is sexy in a way that painstakingly accounting for every last Joule can never aspire to.

    Also unfortunately, this leads to unrealistic expectations growing up around such products; and potentially, even a backlash because they failed to live up to the initial, unjustified hype. It would hardly be the first time anybody had been disappointed after investing in an endeavour which they did not understand properly — “more money than sense” did not become a cliché for no reason.

    Compare how, if Lord of the Flies happened for real, the boys most probably would set on Piggy, considering it his fault that his concave lenses were unable to focus sunlight to a single point.

  10. felicis says

    To speak to ‘sustainability’.

    The anode is effectively dissolved into the brine. That is – we now have a water solution in which metal is dissolved, depending on which metal (we don’t know), disposal is going to be a problem.

  11. komarov says

    You may have a point there. At first I thought any waste would most likely be too dilute to be of concern, so I tried to get a rough estimate:

    Judging by the size of the lamp in the picture, I’d guess it would need about a cup (~250ml) of water per ‘dose’ (8 hours operational time). The lamp is supposed to last half a year at least, so that’s about 180 days, 180 cups of water or 45 litres. For the anode size I just pulled some numbers out of my hat: 5 x 5 x 2 cm or 50 ccm of a metal*, for example zinc.

    So, the back of the envelope calculation says:
    Zinc: 50 ccm = 357 g = 5.46 mol
    Dissolving it in 45 L water would result in a solution with 7.9g / Litre (0.12 M)

    That’s actually fairly concentrated. The opinion on disposal of Zinc solution, which is rather harmful, varies. Some sources (via google) say small amounts in the drain may be okay, but mostly it’s a “no”. It may be tempting to think that chucking it back into the ocean should be okay. A few buckets a day from a seaside village against the entiretey of the ocean, what could happen? On the other hand, aquatic organisms often accumulate toxins and the locals probably want them to stay alive (and edible). The normal zinc concentration in sea water appears to be some 10 orders of magnitude lower. So, no, that wouldn’t be ideal, at least not with zinc.

    *Actually, I have no idea about electrode sizes so I’m again just trying to pick (generously, I hope) numbers based on the rough dimensions of the box in the picture. If it’s smaller that means there’ll be less metal to dissolve.

  12. says

    I agree that a solar lamp with a battery is probably better. A hand-cranked generator with a battery, better still. I used to have an emergency light in my car that would stay bright for a good while with just a few squeezes of the handle – that made it a pizza-powered light with me being the battery that held the energy extracted from the pizza: a battery which also produces some unpleasant byproducts including sweat, pizza boxes, poop, hair, and blog postings.

    It’s kind of cool, though, when you see some area of technology get pared down to be optimally cheap or optimally easy to make. When you’re down to figuring out which is better, a little solar panel, or a little generator, or a piece of copper wire, it’s getting pretty cheap.

  13. says

    The idea of FREE ENERGY!!!!! is sexy in a way that painstakingly accounting for every last Joule can never aspire to.

    We need to make accounting for Joules cool, again. Or, has it ever been cool?

  14. says

    We need to make accounting for Joules cool, again. Or, has it ever been cool?

    The increasing cost of fossil fuels may well yetbturn out to have that effect …..

    The purchase price of my grid-tied solar installation, if considered as a bulk purchase of its predicted lifetime energy output, worked out only 25% more than the meter rate at the time. As soon as the price of electricity surpasses that Equivalent Unit Rate, I will be up on the deal. The rebate I get on what I can’t use and therefore gets sold to the grid is just a bonus. (We early adopters helped lower prices for the next generation of buyers, who in turn get a smaller rebate — but they are making a greater saving. Earlier adopters than I ended up on a nice little earner. Still, it’s hard to begrudge them when I have benefitted directly from their investments …..)

    The underlying science behind this lamp — a metal-air cell feeding a blocking oscillator which acts as a voltage booster to reach the striking voltage of the LED — actually seems quite sound (apart from the toxic waste product, which I hope can be mitigated against somehow), and it would be a shame for it to be over-hyped to a level up to which it cannot possibly live.