A project to use dirt-powered batteries to charge cell phones in Africa won a $100,000 grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today.

Led by Aviva Presser Aiden, Ph.D. ’09, an affiliate of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) who is now a student at Harvard Medical School, the aim is to develop a microbial fuel cell-based charger that could be readily and cheaply assembled out of basic components to increase access to health care via mobile applications in the developing world. The project, hosted by the Laboratory-at-Large at Harvard, will have an initial field-test site in sub-Saharan Africa.

This grant was made under the call for Gates Grand Challenges Exploration Grant (CGE) proposals to “Create Low-Cost Cell Phone-Based Applications for Priority Global Health Conditions.”

Cell phones are becoming a ubiquitous and increasingly crucial part of the health care infrastructure of the developing world. The devices provide a critical gateway to health information and offer contact with physicians who cannot reach remote locations.

For instance, even in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 500 million people lack power in their homes, 22 percent of households have cell phones. Keeping the devices charged, however, can be a challenge.

“We plan to develop an MFC-based cell phone charger,” says Aiden. “Our goal is to make a charger would cost of order a dollar and could completely charge a phone in 24 hours. Furthermore, unlike solar panels, MFCs do not require any sophisticated materials: They can be easily assembled in only a few minutes. As cultural knowledge of MFC technology spreads, Africans will become capable of assembling their own chargers almost entirely from scratch, and at minimal cost that will be recouped with the very first recharge.”