Monday, April 12, 2010

Emerging Markets Plugging In To Mother Earth

Imagine you are living far, far off the grid, in an emerging market rural outpost, say 100 miles Northwest of Moroto, Uganda near......well, you are pretty sure there's an outside world. You'd like a radio, maybe even a cellphone. You'd like to see at night without lighting candles and filling your home, and your baby's lungs, with soot and other dangerous combustion reaction products. If only you had an extension cord 100 miles long or better yet, if only you could just plug in to the dirt floor of your own home.

Soon you will be doing exactly that. Lebone Solutions, a team of six MIT students, has developed a battery powered by microbes living in dirt which can operate for months, charging LED lights, radios and cell phones. The device costs less than $20. It harnesses the energy from metabolic reactions of soil dwelling bacteria, an energy source that has been recognized for years but not utilized in a practical way. Lebone Solutions member Presser Aiden predicts 1,000 households will be using one by this summer. Although the dirt battery will be welcome in many emerging market areas, it was designed with sub-Saharan Africa in mind a region where some of the Lebone Solution members (along with 500 million other people) have lived without power.

The dirt battery was hailed by Popular Mechanics as one of the ten most brilliant innovations of 2009 and named one of the winners in this year's MIT IDEAS competition. It's also featured in a cover story on public service at MIT in this month's Spectrum (an MIT newsletter). The Spectrum story made me feel much better about many years of contributions - contributions to a wealthy institution that didn't always seem like it should be high on the list of neediest candidates for my limited funds.

The Spectrum public service story also reminds me of two trends I've been noticing lately. The first is a greater emphasis on relatively low tech solutions to problems like malaria, rural power or clean water. Solutions that combine solid engineering and cultural analysis without spending a fortune on new frontiers of basic science or expensive equipment that many emerging market populations can't afford. The second trend is the rapid advance of microfinance, with organizations like Kiva leading the way and tools like securitization steering microfinance in the direction of a socially beneficial investment that can compete with other interest bearing options. These trends are a powerful combination that might lead to a real take-off for impoverished rural areas a lot faster than expected.

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1 comment:

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