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Mobile phones in developing nations could charge up using dirt


May 9, 2011

A Harvard team is developing a microbial fuel cell-based mobile phone charger, that would allow people in developing nations to charge their phones using microbes in the soil (Photo: whiteafrican via Flickr)

A Harvard team is developing a microbial fuel cell-based mobile phone charger, that would allow people in developing nations to charge their phones using microbes in the soil (Photo: whiteafrican via Flickr)

There's no doubt that residents of developing nations can benefit hugely from having mobile phones. This particularly applies to the field of medicine, as the phones allow people living in remote areas to contact health care practitioners, or to use health care apps. Given how unreliable the electrical grid can be in such countries, however, keeping those phones charged can be a challenge. That's why a team from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is working on a microbial fuel cell-based charger – a mobile phone charging system that gets its power from microbes in the soil.

The project is being led by Dr. Aviva Presser Aiden, an affiliate of SEAS and a current student at Harvard Medical School. Her device incorporates a conductive surface, that harvests free electrons created by naturally-occurring soil microbes during the course of their metabolic processes. She has already used the technology to power LED lights in a lab for 14 months.

Once they're ready to go, Aiden plans on distributing the chargers within a region of Sub-Saharan Africa, as part of a field study. Ultimately, however, she would like to see the local people being able to build their own, using readily-available materials such as window screens and soda cans. She believes that a complete device could be assembled from scratch in just a few minutes, at a cost of less than a dollar. It should be able to fully charge a phone within 24 hours.

Currently, over 500 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa lack power in their homes, even though 22 percent of households in the region have mobile phones. Therefore, many people have to walk long distances to charging stations, paying between 50 cents and a dollar per charge. While solar chargers are one alternative, Aiden says that can be costly, and are often not even offered due to the lack of a distribution/repair network.

The project received a US$100,000 grant last month, from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges program.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

As someone that has lived and worked in the back country (aka bush) of a third world country, I can agree on the usefulness of a mobile communications device. I however find myself at odds with the spread of cell and similar mobile phones. I observed advertisement of such devices as necessary AND people being less than those around them if they did not have the phones. This resulted in people spending money desperately needed for food on cell phones (buying air time, as the phones were basically given away to them).

If it can somehow be required that the cell companies DONATE unrestricted amounts of air time, or that the government provide the services, I am fine with expanding the use. Until that is done though, let the people have their money for what is NEEDED. If you really want to provide communications, give the service to fixed emergency locations and make it free.


well i hope this method come out to be an economical one because this has already been done in rural areas....

Ghazi Alam
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