Soil-powered fuel cell for endless, eco-friendly energy

Northwestern University scientists have unveiled a groundbreaking fuel cell capable of generating continuous electricity from soil, offering an eco-friendly alternative to traditional batteries. The compact unit, roughly the size of a book, harnesses the power of naturally occurring bacteria in the soil to produce electricity.

George Wells, an associate professor at Northwestern University, emphasized the ubiquity of these microbes, stating that simple engineered systems can capture their electricity for practical, low-power applications. While the technology may not power entire cities, it excels at providing minute amounts of energy ideal for applications like agricultural sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices in remote locations.

The soil-based microbial fuel cell (MFC) draws inspiration from a 113-year-old concept developed by British botanist Michael Cressé Potter, who successfully generated electricity from microorganisms. The recent iteration of the technology outperformed comparable systems by 120%, enduring wet and dry conditions while powering soil moisture sensors and touch-detecting devices.

Northwestern alumnus Bill Yen who led the research, emphasized the importance of seeking alternatives to lithium and heavy metals for the growing number of IoT devices. As long as there is organic carbon present in the soil for microbes to break down, the fuel cell presents a potentially everlasting source of energy.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies on January 12, pointing towards a sustainable and renewable future for low-power applications in agriculture and IoT.

Working in the lab, Northwestern alumnus Bill Yen buries the fuel cell in soil.

Photo credit: Northwestern University