Boiled potatoes, solar bulbs can bring affordable light to developing world

I had to chuckle this morning when I checked my Clean Break column on the Toronto Star’s Web site. The business section has an area that ranks the most read articles by the hour. Despite there being G20-related business stories coming out of the city that hosted the controversial G20 Summit (I say controversial because $1 billion was spent on it and the past weekend saw hoodlums breaking store windows and lighting cop cars on fire), the top-read story so far this morning has been my column on turning boiled potatoes into batteries. Go figure — a sure sign that Torontonians have G20 fatigue.

In any event, my column takes a look at a study out of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that evaluates the practicality of using boiled potatoes to produce power for LED lighting in the developing world. The idea here is that a family would make dinner and boil an extra potato. The potato is sliced into four or five pieces and a zinc and copper plate are attached to each side of the potato slice. Connect the slices in series and finally to a couple of LEDs and, voila, for a few hours you’ve got a reading light in a village that has no electricity and therefore limited lighting alternatives. The scientists behind the study say it would cost 50 per cent less than using a AA battery and six times less than producing the same amount of light from a kerosene lamp. It’s also better than using a kerosene lamp because there are no harmful emissions or fire safety hazards involved. I was told that a dozen or so potatoes prepared this way could charge a cellphone.

My column also takes a look at a solar-powered bulb developed by a company called Nokero, which is also touting its product as ideal for villages in the developing world that don’t have electricity infrastructure to supply basic needs, such as lighting.

3 thoughts on “Boiled potatoes, solar bulbs can bring affordable light to developing world”

  1. How long do the Zn and Cu electrodes last? How expensive and easily obtained are they? Particularly in the developing world?

  2. Enjoyable article! Useful for the third world? Maybe- though it seems like a shortage of food is a bigger problem, so it would be good to get clarification on the edibility of the potato after its stint as a battery. I wonder if you could re-charge it? Spud-moble, here we come!

    Oh- and props for waiting until 3/4 of the way thru the article before mentioning McGyver (I wouldn’t have lasted so long, myself;-)

    Now, next time I’m stranded in the middle of Idaho and my cell phone dies…

  3. Impressive idea.

    However, what are the health issues from eating potatoes that have been
    electrolysing Copper and Zinc? Are there dangerous levels to human health
    for absorbing Copper and Zinc? How much will a potato absorb in an evening?

    (If I lived that close to the earth, I’d eat those potatoes after using them
    to power lights for my family.)

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