Artist Olafur Eliasson using his invention, the Little Sun solar lamp, to create 'light graffiti.' Arts at MIT

One little solar-powered light could have a big impact in the developing world.

The Little Sun is just under five inches across, made of durable plastic, and shaped like a sunburst or sunflower. A solar panel on the back powers a little LED light in the front. Charging the lamp for a minimum of five hours gets you 10 hours of soft light, or four hours of bright light.

Little Sun’s creator, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, is more widely known in the art world for grand installations like “the weather project,” a 2003 display at London’s Tate Modern museum. In that project, Eliasson filled a massive gallery with mist and hung shining yellow lamps in a semicircle, which when reflected in a mirror installed on the ceiling, gave the impression of a vast, low-hanging sun.

The Little Sun is a much smaller lamp, but Eliasson designed it to tackle a widespread problem in the developing world. In many areas where people live outside of the reach of the electrical grid, the only sources of light at night are kerosene lamps. But kerosene is costly, and hazardous to human health -- according to Eliasson, a 10-year-old child doing homework by a kerosene lantern is inhaling the pollution equivalent of 40 cigarettes per day (a claim supported by World Bank research.)

Getting a cleaner source of light into households across the developing world could be a massive public health boon. Eliasson and his business partner, engineer Frederik Ottesen, started not with the lamp technology itself but by surveying the market in the countries where they wanted Little Sun to flourish.

“We looked at how much a family, on average, spent on kerosene, and then said, ‘OK, we have to be 10 ten times cheaper,’” Eliasson said in a phone interview.

Once they had a price target, the technology assembled fairly quickly -- overall, the Little Sun went from idea to reality in only about eight or nine months, according to Eliasson.

The Little Sun team is trying to be sensitive to both the economic as well as health concerns of the developing world. Other companies that donate products, such as TOMS Shoes, have come under fire from critics who argue their methods are destructive to local artisans and businesses. But Eliasson and Ottesen aren’t just flying into Africa and dumping the lamps in people’s laps for free. They’re working with local importers, wholesalers and retailers to get the Little Sun to local people. The only real losers are the kerosene companies.

This week, the Council for the Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded Eliasson, the 2014 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT. The award comes with a $100,000 cash prize and a campus residency. MIT students will also be working on making installations with the Little Sun lamp.

Eliasson, who often melds science with his art, is excited for his upcoming residency in Cambridge, Mass.

“MIT has a history with trans-disciplinary projects, connecting arts with science, and a strong history for seeing art as something that can produce new realities,” Eliasson says. “I see MIT as this big reality machine.”

Eliasson also hopes to harness MIT scientists’ engineering chops, and perhaps inspire a little bit of competition.

“I want to see if anyone at MIT can beat me at making Little Sun better,” Eliasson says. He’s already in talks with some engineers and other researchers that are examining his business plan. “But I’m ready to bet that what we have already is pretty cool.”

The artist also hopes Little Sun could be a transformative force in the developed world, too. Eliasson thinks that making energy tangible could help make people more sensitive to it -- while most of us living on the electric grid take light for granted as something invisible and frictionless, the consequences of that power have a very tangible effect on the environment.

“What does it actually mean to hold a power station in your hand that has collected sunlight in the day that you can used in the evening?” Eliasson asks. “What feeling is that?”

Eliasson figures that if a child in the first world grows up studying and living with solar energy, they’re probably more likely to choose renewable-energy sources when they get to adulthood.

“I think there’s a very important long-term element in this,” Eliasson says.