Contact: Paolo Bombelli and Chris Howe, Department of Biochemistry
Mentor: Dr. John Mullett

There are over a billion people currently living off grid. Until such communities have access to modern energy services, progress to develop their economies and improve their lives will be hampered. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims to provide access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. The inventors’ vision is to contribute to SDG7 by the mean of bio-electrochemistry under the umbrella of ‘Circular Photosynthesis’, which has the same philosophy as the circular economy.

The inventors, Dr Bombelli and Professor Howe, are promoting the development of a plant-based bio-electrochemical systems (plant-BES) as a biological approach to energy challenges in off-grid communities. In addition to energy, the plant-BES will generate biomass/food, wastewater treatment and promote the formation of local jobs.

Figure 1 shows a prototype of plant-BES operating with grass. In a recent experimental study, the plant-BES prototype was able to generate contextually ~160 gram (dry weight) of grass per square meter per month and ~5000 mAh. By comparison, a typical Ni-Cd battery carries ~300 mAh.


Figure 2a shows a world map that identifies suitable regions for plant-BES implementation. This was based on rainfall and the available regional agricultural area per off-grid person. The plant-BES is most promising at latitudes between the equator and the tropics. Countries in this region are located in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, south Asia and south-east Asia. Based on these data, and applying the minimum regional conditions of 1000 mm/year rainfall and 1000 m2 per off-grid person, the plant-BES could potentially deliver electricity, biomass and wastewater treatment to about 857 million people.

Figure 2b shows the basic concept of a plant-BES hub. Based on typical power requirements for LED lighting, cell phone calls and messaging, an interactive computation sheet was developed to determine the per-capita land requirements for PMFC implementation (ESI Sheet 1). Assuming a moderate power consumption scenario for one individual living off-grid (i.e. power requirement for ten hours of LED light usage, five cell phone calls and delivery of ten SMS), 2-3 square meter of land is required.

The challenge for the i-Team is to speak to a range of relevant experts about the electricity needs in the target areas to verify the theoretical feasibility of a Plant-BES hub for off-grid villages.