Living Power Systems, A Startup Builds a Dirt-Powered Fuel Cell

A new Ivy League spin-out startup is targeting the off-the-grid power market with a fuel cell and a little dirt. Living Power Systems, formerly known as Fiat Lux (“Let There Be Light”), is the brainchild of Peter Girgius, a professor of microbiology at Harvard. The company’s product is a microbial fuel cell (MFC) — which harvest the excess electrons that bacteria generate as they metabolize organic matter — but only requires one square meter of dirt to work.

Girgius has come up with a nice tagline: “Think of it as underground solar energy.” The upside is that the fuel cell is cheap to produce; the estimated cost is under $4 per unit. The downside is that out in the field, it can only deliver 0.5 watts per day. Investors will likely be interested regardless, and the company’s web site says it’s currently seeking seed funding.

Some scientists we’ve written about, like Amherst’s Derek Lovely and J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute, are focusing on particular types of bacteria that they are enhancing in labs to increase their electricity output. Living Power Systems, by contrast, is focusing on everyday bacteria found, literally, everywhere.

Like so many fuel cell companies in what is a difficult market for new energy sources, Living Power is first aiming to gain traction with a niche audience. A recent article stated that the company would be focusing its efforts on the developing world, with a combined light and cell-phone charger. That would place the company in competition with a couple of our do-gooder favorites, Potenco and D-Light Design.

An earlier company presentation suggested another intriguing market for the company: our nation’s public parks. As Girgius told “The best implementation of this is to use it in a setting where you want to deploy a device and leave it alone.” For outdoor sensors or LED lighting in the backcountry, the company’s clean profile could be quite marketable.

The key differentiator of Living Power’s technology is its lower cost and ruggedness. Its ability to use any old bacteria means that the system can be dropped anywhere and generate power for eight to 10 years. The cheap components of the system could mean that it’s ready for a mass-market rollout before some of its competitors.

The problem is that most MFCs can only provide for low-power applications. Outside the developing world and niche applications out in the country, MFCs are going to need even more than the 10x power increase (to 5 watts) that Living Power interim CEO Michael Keating says the company has achieved in the lab. After all, most light bulbs still require 60 watts of power, or 120 times what the current generation of Living Power Systems’ product can put out.


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