[INNOVATION- Electricity from Potato] Our daily “Batata” – A Solution to Power Woes?

Posted on July 13, 2010 in Sci-Tech

By Arpit Srivastava:

Many of us must have performed the simple, yet fascinating “Potato cell” experiment in middle school, which is often performed by children, even today, under their teachers’ guidance.

For our readers, who perhaps by some misfortune, have not yet seen or heard of the experiment; it simply involves sticking two different metal wires or thin plates, the materials often chosen as copper and zinc, into a potato, and connecting it to a small bulb, LED etc. On connecting, the bulb glows to life.

This simple experiment is often chosen as one of the first steps of a student into the realm of  Science.

Normally, this experiment barely allows the bulb to faintly light up for a couple of moments.

However, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have discovered a way to boost the electrical output of a potato tenfold.

So, what do you think they did? C’mon, give it a shot.

It probably involved mixing a few dozen chemicals to treat these potatoes, right? Or, perhaps, bombardment of the potatoes with infra-red, UV, Gamma etc rays, to give rise to a mutated potato?

Not at all, my dear reader.

What those scientists did is actually something, that might be happening everyday in your household kitchen. They merely boiled them!

By just boiling it (or even just keeping a potato in a pot of water under the hot sun could do the trick), the researchers discovered that electrical output increased many-fold.

The LEDs could glow for  several days (or even weeks!), instead of just a few hours.

The reason attributed to this phenomenon is, that on boiling, the potato cells’ (the other cells from biology) membranes get ruptured, leading to a drastic lowering of internal resistance, thus allowing for higher current flow between the zinc and copper electrodes.

One of the researchers revealed ,“We were hesitant about publishing it because it sounds so trivial. I mean, a boiled potato? On the other hand, it’s very valuable for many people around the world.”

“It can produce the same amount of electricity as one AA battery for about 50 per cent less cost, and if you were to produce light with an LED from this battery, then the cost will be six times less than the cost of producing the same amount of light from a kerosene lamp,” .

In fact, these potato batteries could also be anything from six to fifty times cheaper than their commercial 1.5 V counterparts.

He said a dozen potatoes prepared this way could also charge a cell phone.

I wouldn’t be surprised, if in the future,  these potatoes were somehow manipulated to produce a steady supply of electricity for a long time, completely replacing the batteries available today.

This would not only provide us with a cheap source of energy, but also solve the problems of exhaustion of mineral resources, pollution and disposal of the commercial batteries (a sizeable proportion of the total waste), by providing an alternative which doesn’t consume our mineral resources, is completely natural, organic as well as quickly biodegradable.

In the future, perhaps even ‘cells’, powered by our own bodies.

Researchers have suggested that these ‘boiled potato cells’ could be used, as a base for further research in self-powered pacemakers for heart patients, running on some what similar chemical reactions inside the human body as the in the potato.

This amazing observation could well change the lives of millions in the developing world who still live in darkness, still relying on kerosene oil, with no proper infrastructure for electricity supply, telecommunication etc. Not to mention the rising price of kerosene oil.

Potatoes are the fourth largest crop cultivated and consumed in the world. They are abundant in many developing countries. They have already been used to make biodegradable plastics.

With such an abundant in supply, the battery could turn out to be a boon for the world’s power crisis.

Isn’t it so surprising that such a simple observation of the potatoes, could be lead to a possible solution  to so many of our environmental problems?

We often tend to underestimate the power of simple things in life.

This was yet another case of KISS – Keep It Simple and Smart – though in Eco-‘shtyle’.