Harvard Scientists Create Dirt Powered Bacteria Batteries

by , 10/12/09

sustainable design, green design, lebone, microbial fuel cell battery, energy, renewable energy, dirt power, global development

Harvard scientists believe in the power of the good earth — literally. A team at the Boston-based college have created microbial fuel cell (MFC) batteries that derive energy from naturally occurring bacteria in soil. If the product takes off, the eco-friendly batteries could provide power for some of the 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity.

sustainable design, green design, lebone, microbial fuel cell battery, energy, renewable energy, dirt power, global development

The MFC batteries, which were recently honored as one of Popular Mechanics‘ 10 Most Brilliant Innovations of 2009, were first tested in Tanzania in 2008. The MFC came in the form of a five-pound bucket, and was made up of a graphite- cloth anode, chicken-wire cathode, mud with manure, a layer of sand which acted as an ion barrier and salt water which acted as an electrolyte. All components were hooked up to an electronic power-management board. The charge coming out of the device is strong enough to charge a cell phone or power LED lights.

This summer, Lebone (the company formed by the Harvard team) instituted a pilot program in Namibia. So far, 100 MFCs have been buried in dirt and can provide power for several months to Namibian families who lack access to electricity.

The system is ideal for developing nations because the MFCs are cheap to produce, easily made and eco-friendly. In fact, it seems a shame that this tech is only being used in Africa right now. We don’t know about you, but we would be thrilled to bury some MFCs in our backyards and use them to power our small electronic devices.

+ Lebone

Via Popular Mechanics

Lead photo by Dennis Kleiman for Popular Mechanics

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  1. Worktop-Man November 5, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    It’s great that scientists are looking for ways to make things better and this is a step in the right direction. Can the LED lights actually light up a room?

    Darren Tidmarsh
    Kitchen Magic

  2. Skibunny October 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I’m thrilled to hear that extremophiles are being put to good work!
    I feel credit should also be given to Dr. Derek Lovely (University of Massachusetts, Amherst & Naval Research Laboratory) who has been studying “Geobacters” for well over ten years. (Refer to Scientific American Magazine or USA Today). In fact my daughter did her Grade 8 Science Fair Project on mud batteries in 2002, inspired by Dr. Lovely’s fascinating work. Wonderful that scientists are taking this to the next level.

  3. jeanX October 13, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Are there any downsides?
    Why won’t it power a netbook?
    Plus wires?

  4. alexjameslowe October 12, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Wow- it doesn’t sound all that hard to build. Not a bad idea at all! How well it would work in a midwestern winter?

  5. Kirsten Corsaro October 12, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Interesting! I wonder if there’s potential for the batteries to provide power for larger devices (like computers) as well.

  6. s3xt0y October 12, 2009 at 10:50 am

    thats cool.

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