Development Economics

Electric Dirt

It is called "Dirt Power."  Or, more specifically, as the scientists call it, a microbial fuel cell.  A team of undergraduate researchers at Harvard, a small liberal-arts university in New England, invented a battery that runs on dirt.  Actually, it runs on microbes that like to hang out and dine on the decaying organic matter that exists in the dirt.  The team that invented this technology - an organization called Lebone - won the MIT IDEAS competition and, recently, their creation was called one of the 10 most brilliant inventions of 2009 by Popular Mechanics.  First, the problem:

There is currently a dramatic shortage of electrical power in Africa. One billion Africans, constituting a sixth of the world’s population, generate only 4% of global electricity. In most African countries, 95% of the population is living off-grid with no access to electricity (World Bank Millennium Goals Report, 2006). This has a devastating effect on socio-economic development, education, health, and safety. Imagine a village at night in which students are walking to distant highways to study under streetlights, where small merchants are investing half of their resources to pay for kerosene lighting to run their operations, and where emergency health workers, if operating at all, are trying to stitch up wounds and perform surgeries by candlelight. Lack of energy is one of the Africa’s biggest obstacles to development, and a major deterrent for foreign investors. (more…)