Power from dirt

Lebônê Solutions, Inc. is a social enterprise organization working in off-grid energy delivery and lighting technology using cutting edge clean energy technology. This Harvard engineering team is on a very serious mission: creating a new source of power for the more than 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who live without access to electricity. They are not searching in the direction of wind or solar energy sources but are working to develop fuel cells made from the bacteria that occur in soil or waste.

This innovative group was founded in 2007 by Aviva Presser Aiden & Hugo Van Vuuren and is named after the African Sotho word for “light stick”.  Their goal is to help end the energy and lighting crisis in Africa by harnessing emerging technologies and adapting them for the African market where currently 74 % of the population live without electricity.  Back in May 2008 six Harvard students (later known as Lebônê), won a $200,000 grant from World Bank at the Lighting Africa 2008 event in Ghana for inventing a way to turn soil into electricity using microbial fuel cells. The microbial fuel cells they developed use soil bacteria to create an electric charge. In the presence of water, such bacteria naturally produce free electrons as a by-product of their metabolic growth. The cells, which are placed in canvas bags filled with dirt and buried in the ground, harness those electrons to create enough current to power LED lights, run a radio and charge mobile phones.

The Lebônê team could provide the batteries to African villages ready-made, but they want villagers to build their own to promote a sense of ownership. They hope that as the technology is refined, each household can make its own battery for a one-time cost of less than $10. According to Lebônê it can be made by people with minimal training.  “People walk an hour or more a day to the local high schools to get their phones charged for two or three days,” explains co-founder van Vuuren, noting that the phones were sources of light as well as communication devices. The batteries are also used to power radios, Mr. Van Vuuren said, as important a medium of communication in Africa as the cellphone.

This past June, Lebônê used a $200,000 grant from the World Bank to launch an 18-month pilot program in Tanzania. They linked 100 fuel cells and found that after being watered, the batteries could generate power for months through a connected circuit board. If the project is successful, Van Vuuren hopes the cells will offer a low-cost answer to rural Africa’s energy needs for years to come.



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