Light the World Using Dirt Powered Fuel Cells!

by , 05/22/08

dirt power, soil power, microbial fuel cells, electricity from soil, electricity from dirt, green power, lighting africa, Sephen Lwendo, David Sengeh, Alexander Fabry, Zoë Sachs-Arellano, Aviva Presser, lebônê

Take a little bit of soil, add some microbes, a little bit of human ingenuity and you’ll find yourself with the most unlikely source of power ever – dirt! Building off of this simple concept, a team from Harvard led by Hugo Van Vuuren have just been named amongst the winners of the World Bank’s Lighting Africa 2008 Development Competition. Their idea is to develop a series of dirt based fuel cells that are capable of lighting high efficiency LED lamps and their goal is to light up Africa.

dirt power, soil power, microbial fuel cells, electricity from soil, Sephen Lwendo, David Sengeh, Alexander Fabry, Zoë Sachs-Arellano, Aviva Presser, electricity from dirt, green power, lighting africa, lebônê, kerosene1.jpgDave Irvine-Halliday at Light Up The World foundation points out the fire hazards of kerosene lamps

Van Vuuren, alongside fellow Africans Sephen Lwendo, David Sengeh, together with Alexander Fabry, Zoë Sachs-Arellano and Aviva Presser have founded Lebônê. Their organization is dedicated to bringing low cost energy solutions to Africa. One of the most often talked about issues in Africa is the lack of cheap and non-toxic light sources. A large number of people rely on kerosene lamps or candles, which are extremely unsuitable for use inside the small and not very well ventilated houses. Lebônê aims to solve this crisis.

Their solution is to create dirt based microbial fuel cells to power electricity conducting polymers, or PLEDs. Microbial fuel cells (originally developed by Peter Girguis) work by tapping the energy that microbes generate as they break down organic matter. The idea is that you can dig a hole in the ground, then fill it with animal and plant waste. You take an anode and a cathode, hook it up to a circuit board and voila, enough electricity to charge up a battery! Put all of this into a solid container and you have a mobile, soil-based generator.

Now, you may of course be wondering how come you can’t use this technique to run your house, but the reason is quite simple. The amount of power that you can get from an MFC is directly related to its size. You need about one cubic meter of organic matter to power one LED light. But, on the bright side, they are almost zero-maintenance, require very little technology and can be assembled by pretty much anyone. In other words, it is the perfect technology for those who are unable to afford any other sort of power.

Human ingenuity never ceases to amaze us, and going so far as to solve the energy crisis in Africa in an extremely sustainable manner is a wonderfully exciting endeavor. Not bad for a project which started as a simple student design that was meant to simply light up a display at the London Olympics. Lebônê will be running trials on this project soon with 10 devices in 10 households in Tanzania. If the pilot program is successful, the devices and technology will be distributed across Tanzania.

+ Lebônê
+ Lighting Africa

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  1. wabanaki October 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Aside from this project being about as sustainable as bottled water, there has also been some concern that Lebone’s technology is not actually a microbial fuel cell, but a simple acid battery…

    However, there are a few other existing options out there for experimentation. Anyone can make their own microbial fuel cell fairly easily. Check out KeegoTech’s MudWatt for example.

  2. Stephanie82 May 24, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    I believe this to be a great idea and maybe a possible solution to solving the energy crisis in lighting Africa, but is it really going to be all that simple? As posted by Androo if the fuel cell requires new material as previously stated then will this really be all that of a working solution? Or will such a project only great more problems in the long run to Africa’s enegry crisis?

  3. hugh May 23, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Not impressed!

    The energy (and technology) that is in the electrodes, the bio-film and the mystical circuit board (a wee booster circuit??) – oh, and in the container! are in all way in excess of the power that might be delivered.

    What is wrong with solar powered LED units with a better battery maintenance circuit?? – less muss, less fuss and higher power densities – and you don’t have to muck with it. The common garden solar lights are the same technology – but their construction and batteries are crap, but they embody the general principles.

    I think that this is a ‘feel good’ for people who like playing in mud.


  4. Scott May 22, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    I think this is a great project and is a wonderful first step in discovering organic power sources. Although i don’t see this lighting africa in the next few years i think this type of thinking could eventually do just that.

  5. Androo May 22, 2008 at 11:25 am

    While I love the idea of free energy, and admire their ingenuity, I’m concerned that the power density in this situation remains a bit of a stumbling block.

    1 cubic meter of organic material is a lot of organic material (has anyone else worked as a landscaper?), especially for 1 LED light. Even if you only needed to run that light for half the day, you’d still need a cube 80x80x80cm to charge the battery. If the fuel cell doesn’t need fresh material for the microbes to break down, this might be a workable solution, but if they do, it’s a lot of effort to put in for a single light.

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