Electricity from Dirt – a Breakthrough for Africa ?


Students from Harvard University – four Africans and two Americans – have just won an award for their pioneering work on Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) which turn soil into electricity.
The project has won a grant of $200,000 from the Development Marketplace at the Lighting Africa 2008 event in Accra, Ghana this month. Entrants were invited to submit technology projects that enabled Africans to access reliable electricity generated without fossil fuels. Currently three quarters of Africans do not have access to an electricity supply.
The winning project involves placing an anode and cathode in the ground, laying soil and sand on top and connecting to a circuit board that charges a battery. The energy is generated by the activity of soil microbes (typically bacteria or fungi) as they break down organic matter. The charged battery can then be used to charge an LED light, a mobile phone or a radio.
Although the quantities of energy generated are small, and will never compete with wind power, the project winners Lebone (pronounced La-bo-nay from the Sotho word for light, lamp or candle) have designed the cell for use at a local micro level and believe that the quantities of energy produced can be increased as the technology is developed over the coming 18 months. Circuits can also be linked together for larger supply outputs. Spokesman Hugo Van Vuuren from South Africa predicts that viable systems will be available for under $10 each in three years’ time, contributing significantly to the goal of producing low-cost green energy to 250 million people across Africa.

GREENEX2010 will highlight alternative energy solutions, hopefully this one.