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.

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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.