Microbes in Dirt Provide Electricity for African Villagers

microbial fuel cell photo

A makeshift microbial fuel cell: a bucket, waste water and a graphite sheet. Photo: Lebônê

Providing electricity to people in countries where either the grid is not reliable, or nonexistent and unlikely ever to be built, can make a huge difference in people’s quality of life in very practical ways. We’ve written before about companies such as D.Light Design which have solar-powered replacements for kerosene lanterns , and efforts to bring small-scale solar panels to off-grid villages in Laos. Hand cranked cell phone chargers, radios and flashlights are other proven options that have received attention.

Microbial Fuel Cells Provide Enough Power for Small Devices
One option which is being investigated in a pilot project by Cambridge, Massachusetts company Lebônê Solutions is using microbial fuel cells to provide electricity to villagers in Tanzania. While the power produced by microbial fuel cells isn’t great, it does provide enough electricity for the small DC powered devices that the villagers want to run, Lebônê co-founder Hugo Van Vuuren told Technology Review. Compared to other renewable energy options such as solar panels or small-scale wind turbines they are also less expensive to produce and easier to set up.A What Type of Fuel Cell?
Lebônê gives us a very basic rundown on how microbial fuel cells work:

These inexpensive fuel cells run on animal and plant waste and naturally occurring soil microbes, and are framed around a flexible substrate (wood, steel, etc) that can vary by geographic availability. This is truly electricity right out of the ground. These fuel cells are used to charge a battery or cheap supercapacitor, which in turn will be used to power a high-efficiency efficient LED or PLED lamp.

And Technology Review gives us a bit more detail:

To make the fuel cell, the team put graphite cloth--the anode--in the bottom of a bucket along with chicken wire--the cathode--and microbe-laden waste, either mud, cow manure, or residue from coffee crops. A layer of sand acts as an ion barrier while salt water helps the protons travel more easily. The team adds a power management board (the only device that the villagers will most likely have to import, says [Lebônê co-founder Aviva] Presser) to regulate the power and send it to a battery. Such a fuel cell can run a cheap, efficient light-emitting diode (LED) for four to five hours per evening. "We're hoping the entire system will be around $10 when we're ready," says Presser.

Namibia Next Up For Fuel Cell Trial
After Tanzania, Lebônê’s second trial, funded by a $200,000 grant from the World Bank, will be an 18-month pilot project in Namibia where the the firm will couple their fuel cell design with the the next generation of LEDs.

:: Lebônê Solutions, :: Technology Review and :: Plenty
Small-scale Renewable Energy
Solar Power System Rental Model Brings Clean Power to Lao Villages
Solar-Powered LED Lanterns: A Replacement for Kerosene?
Hand Cranked Cell Phone Charger
Microbial Fuel Cells
Juicing Up Your Cell Phone with Microbial Fuel Cells
Using Sweet-Toothed Bacteria to Produce Hydrogen
Microbe Power: 10 Fold Energy Increase

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