Sanjit “Bunker” Roy Brings Light to a Dark Continent

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A team of American engineers has developed an inexpensive battery that runs on dirt.

If you live in Africa, chances are you’re off the grid. According to the UN’s International Energy Agency, just over 40 percent of Africans had access to electricity in 2009, and in rural areas, it’s closer to one in four. There are a lot of really good reasons why a traditional electronic grid isn’t an option, especially in rural areas. But all that means is that improving access means getting creative.

Even if rural villages could afford to be on a grid, says Indian activist Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, it would make them dependent on engineers and companies that are often dismissive of local needs. The solution, he says, is to teach poor villagers how to solar-electrify their own communities. For 40 years, Roy’s multi-campus Barefoot College has taught impoverished and illiterate people in rural areas skills in medicine, architecture, and since 1990, solar technology. With dozens of villages already electrified in Africa, Roy plans to bring the technology to 25,000 homes in coming years, says New Internationalist (June 2012).

The kicker? Only women can take courses on solar–and mostly, it’s grandmothers. About ten years into the program, Roy noticed a problem: if young men learn how to manage a solar circuit board, they’re likely to leave their village to find similar work in cities, which means there’s no one to maintain the technology at home. But grandmothers are much more invested in their families and surroundings, so they stay put. Their knowledge becomes invaluable to the community.

Roy’s strategy is decidedly small-step, which means it may not reach many of the 500 million sub-Saharan Africans still without power–at least not yet. But where solar is still out of reach, some people in rural Africa are turning to a new kind of battery that–get this–runs on dirt. That is, dirt and graphite. The idea, developed by a team led by engineer Aviva Presser Aiden, is to gather the free electrons that soil microbes regularly produce. Any non-corrosive metal, such as graphite, will work, as long as there’s not too much oxygen around. So the final ingredient is a sealable container, like a jar or plastic bottle.

Presser’s super-low-tech approach is good news for poor farmers, who need very little training to run one of the batteries, says Pacific Standard (July 9, 2012). It’s also really, really cheap. Presser is currently working on bringing the price down to around $5, which is a big deal in countries where the average annual income is around $100.

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