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Posted on May 20, 2008 by  & 

Undergraduates develop dirt-powered microbial fuel cells

A team of Harvard students and alumni was among the winners of the World Bank's Lighting Africa 2008 Development Marketplace competition, held in Accra, Ghana earlier this month. The innovative, microbial fuel cell-based lighting systems suitable for Sub-Saharan Africa won a $200,000 grant for the group.
According to the World Bank nearly 75 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans, or 550 million people, do not have access to electricity - many people rely upon dangerous kerosene lamps and candles for illumination.
To encourage the development of cheaper and safer lighting technologies, the organizers of Lighting Africa 2008 sought practical solutions from around the world, ultimately funding 16 of the original 400 proposals.
The winning Harvard project came to life thanks to an undergraduate course, "Idea Translation", taught by David Edwards, McKay Professor of the Practice of Bioengineering. As part of the course Edwards challenged students to develop an idea that crossed the conventional boundaries of art and science, imagining light engineering as an art form.
To translate their idea into a reality, the team collaborated with Richard Kirk, the founder of the London-based Elumin8 and Polyphotonics; and Peter Girguis, Assistant Professor of Biology in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, who pioneered a microbial fuel cell (MFC) energy source suitable for the developing world.
MFCs capture energy produced by naturally occurring microbial metabolism and can generate electricity from organic-rich materials such as soil, manure, or food scraps. By contrast, most renewable energy technologies are based on solar or wind power. Unlike these and other natural solutions for generating electricity, the team says MFCs are more reliable - working day or night, rain or shine - and are markedly less expensive.
The money from the World Bank competition and additional funding from Harvard Initiative for Global Health will be used to conduct the first field study in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania starting in July. The team then have plans to test and distribute refined prototypes in Namibia in collaboration with Namibia Connection Youth Network.
The researchers have created a company Lebônê Solutions, which is dedicated to solving the lighting crisis in Africa.
Lighting Africa is a World Bank Group initiative aimed at providing up to 250 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa with access to non-fossil fuel based, low cost, safe, and reliable lighting products with associated basic energy services by the year 2030.
References: Harvard University, Lighting Africa, World Bank
Top image: Lighting Africa
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