Gates Grant Funds Soil-Based Power

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has won $100,000 to harness the electrical power generated by microbes in the soil beneath our feet.

The Microbial Fuel Cell, which researchers hope will one day charge cell-phones in regions lacking access to power, is one of 88 projects to win the Grand Challenges Explorations grant through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Harvard’s project is led by Aviva P. Aiden, a SEAS graduate and current student at Harvard Medical School.

The idea first came to Aiden when she was a PhD student at SEAS working to develop a project with students, mostly from Africa, who had personal experience with lack of power.

“We started looking around at energy solutions that would be appropriate for parts of Africa that are off grid,” she said, adding that the phenomenon through which soil microbes generate power had not been worked with before. Her team was ultimately able to power an LED.

The research areas in the GCE program prompted Aiden to consider using these same soil microbes as a source of power for cellphones—a solution that has both economic and health advantages in Africa.


People who are “off the grid” often spend hours walking to neighboring schools and villages and then pay to charge their phones—a combination of costs and opportunity costs that might dissuade families from calling for medical help when it is truly necessary, according to Aiden.

The Gates Foundation recognized Aiden’s project despite the fact that she had not yet tried to power a cellphone—a testament to the GCE program’s desire to support ambitious ideas.

First introduced in 2008, the program has already awarded almost 500 grants and received more than 2,500 applications from nearly 100 countries this year.

Applicants were asked to submit research proposals for projects that would “address persistent health and development challenges” in predetermined research areas—including the eradication of the poliovirus and the application of cellphone technology to solve global health issues—according to a press release from the Gates Foundation.

The application process is open to anyone and requires only a two-page research proposal.

“They’re designed to give people the opportunity to pursue things that are a little bit more novel, a little bit off the beaten track,” Aiden said.

Winning the GCE Grant qualifies Aiden to apply for another $1 million from the Gates Foundation in the future, but the technology itself will eventually prove very inexpensive to assemble, she said.

The necessary microbes are easily found in the soil, and harnessing their power requires little more than a few electrodes, carbon fabric, and window screens.

“You want it to be really inexpensive and really easy to use and maintain,” Aiden said.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at


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