The home of the Butbut tribe is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Every morning, when the first rays of sunlight shower upon the steep mountains of Buscalan and its lush green rice fields, the village over there looks nothing less than a paradise. The Butbut is one of the 110 odd tribes which resides in Philippines, an island country made up of more than 70,000 islands.
But their home is not the only thing the Butbut are proud of. They are reputed for being the strongest amongst all their fellow tribes. They are considered as leaders and are respected for their myriad skills, especially headhunting. Their invaders as well as neighbours fear them. Their territory was one of the few places which was never occupied by a foreign invader. In fact, during the Second World War, they fought against the Japanese with just hatchets and spears.
Butbuts, who are the subgroup of a larger community called Kalinga, are also famous across the world for a special type of tattoo, applied on warriors’ bodies. During various rituals and social celebrations, they sing and dance to thank their gods.
However, even these mighty Kalingas had to face a defeat every day. After sunset, darkness surrounded the whole region as if a huge beast was slowly engulfing it with his long and black wings. People would close their stores early and go home before sunset to be safe. The region never had electricity. Hence, life in Buscalan came to a standstill after sunset.
Children who were poor spent all their time after school helping their parents earn money. That meant their school work could be done only at night when there was no electricity. But how could they read in the dark? Villagers had to either cut wood to create a fire or burn a kerosene lamp, as if kerosene was easily accessible. One had to walk 12-hours just to reach the nearest town, Bontok, to get kerosene. If that was not enough, the pollution released from kerosene lamps was harmful to the kids and women. Lung diseases started becoming common and the lamps often caused accidents at home.
Seeing the Butbut people suffer, a girl named Aisa Mijeno, urged to change their lives. Aisa was sure that their fossil fuel had to be replaced by electricity, but she was restricted as the region was far away from formal electric grids.
One day, when Aisa was walking in the rice fields, she realised that water, rice, and salt were available in every household. Could that be a clue to solving the electricity problem of the Butbut?
In school, her science textbooks taught her enough about electrolytes. She now knew that if you have a solution full of charged particles or ions, one could generate electric current with the help of two different metal rods or electrodes. So, why can’t one use the salt water solution as an electrolyte, she thought to herself?
And that was the beginning of the young engineer’s series of experiments. This eventually led her solve the electricity problem of the Butbut and other poor tribes of the island country: a magic lantern, which used saltwater as an electrolyte.
How does one make this magic lantern? In a glass of water, add two tablespoons of salt, and submerge two different types of metal in the glass. The different charges of the electrodes (anode and cathode) throw off excess electrons, via a wire joining them, hence producing electricity. Aisa named her discovery---SALt, or Sustainable Alternative lights. This lamp lights up for eight hours. It generates about 90 lumens, which is equivalent to seven candles. Moreover, it also has a USB slot to charge a mobile phone, but it can only perform one function at a time.
The magic lantern brought her several awards in not just her country but in Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan. She also got a call from the White House asking about her innovation!
This sustainable alternative has helped the poor families of Buscalan avoid the expensive and polluting fuels they were using till now. Had it not been for SALt, they would have felt unsafe within their own homes. But today, they can earn a livelihood without any fear and let their children study even at midnight. Besides, the innovation has also helped people living not just in the mountains but also close to the sea. For instance, the people of an another island in the Phillipines, the Mindoro island, have the 'fuel' of the magic lantern, sea water, available in abundance.