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Undergraduates develop 'dirt-powered' microbial fuel cells to light Africa

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. May 14, 2008 A team composed of Harvard students and alumni was among the winners of the World Banks Lighting Africa 2008 Development Marketplace competition, held in Accra, Ghana from May 6 to 8, 2008. The innovation, microbial fuel cell-based lighting systems suitable for Sub-Saharan Africa, netted the group a $200,000 prize.

According to the World Bank, as only 26 percent of Africas population has access to grid-based electricity most residents rely upon dangerous kerosene lamps and candles for illumination. To encourage the development of cheaper and safer lighting technologies, the organizers of Lighting Africa 2008 sought practical solutions from around the world, ultimately funding 16 of the original 400 proposals.

The winning Harvard project came to life thanks to an undergraduate course, Idea Translation, taught by David Edwards, McKay Professor of the Practice of Bioengineering and author of Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation. As part of the course Edwards challenged students to develop an idea that crossed the conventional boundaries of art and science, imagining light engineering as an art form.

In the course we found what many of us were missing in our lives: A project that combined our love for Africa and our passion for technology, said Harvard College alumnus Hugo Van Vuuren 07, a South African native who took the course as a senior in the fall of 2007. For all the Pan-Africanism of the last four decades it is quite rare to have young students from South, East, and West Africa, in the same room without a soccer ball somehow involved.

Joining Van Vuuren, an economics concentrator, were current undergraduate students Stephen Lwendo 10 (computer science and engineering) and David Sengeh 10 (bioengineering), who are both from Africa, Alexander Fabry 09 (history of science and physics), alumnae Zo Sachs-Arellano 07 (a philosophy concentrator who co-founded the Namibia Connection

Contact: Michael Patrick Rutter
Harvard University

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