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Will potato-powered homes catch on?

By BBC | January 7th 2014

By Jonathan Kalan

Mashed, boiled, baked or fried? You probably have a preference for your potatoes. Haim Rabinowitch, however, likes his “hacked”.

For the past few years, researcher Rabinowitch and colleagues have been pushing the idea of “potato power” to deliver energy to people cut off from electricity grids.

Hook up a potato to a couple of cheap metal plates, wires and LED bulbs, they argue, and it could provide lighting to remote towns and villages around the world.

They’ve also discovered a simple but ingenious trick to make potatoes particularly good at producing energy.

“A single potato can power enough LED lamps for a room for 40 days,” claims Rabinowitch, who is based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The idea may seem absurd, yet it is rooted in sound science.

To make a battery from organic material, all you need is two metals — an anode, which is the negative electrode, such as zinc, and a cathode, the positively charged electrode, such as copper. The acid inside the potato forms a chemical reaction with the zinc and copper, and when the electrons flow from one material to another, energy is released.

Rabinowitch found that by simply boiling potatoes for eight minutes, it broke down the organic tissues inside the potatoes, reducing resistance and allowing for freer movement of electrons — thus producing more energy.

“It’s low voltage energy,” says Rabinowitch, “but enough to construct a battery that could charge mobile phones or laptops in places where there is no grid, no power connection.”

Potatoes are the world’s number one non-grain crop. They are cheap, store easily and last for a long time. The scientists’ cost analyses suggest that a single boiled potato battery with zinc and copper electrodes generates portable energy an estimated six times cheaper than standard kerosene lamps.

So why isn’t the potato battery already a roaring success? Well, there’s the issue of using a food for energy, which FAO warns could deplete food stocks.

However, Kenya loses around 10-20 per cent of its potato yields to lack of access to markets, poor storage conditions and other issues, according to the International Potato Centre in Nairobi. The potatoes that don’t make it to the market could easily be turned into batteries.

It cannot be denied that the potato battery idea works, and it appears cheap. And while it may be a while before it goes mainstream, advocates of potato power are expected to keep chipping away to sell it to the world.        


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