Did you know brown sugar and leaves can produce electricity? A Malaysian Intel International Science and Engineering Fair1 (Intel ISEF) finalist combined these locally sourced ingredients to create an organic battery.
The inspiration for 17-year-old Mohammad Dzarul Dol Malek’s Intel ISEF project came from an unusual source: a cow—or rather, what the cow produced—on his grandfather’s sugarcane farm in Malaysia.
Because the farm is located far from electrical sources, Dzarul decided to try to create an “organic” battery using inexpensive, locally sourced materials. “When I first thought about the organic battery, I thought I should use cow dung,” he said. But his father encouraged him to consider what happens in a cow’s stomach—where enzymes break down leaves to create energy.
Dzarul replicated the cow enzyme using brown sugar, a resource that is plentiful on the family farm, and began using it to break down different types of leaves. The resulting solutions fermented and ultimately produced electricity. Of the leaves he tested, the plant that produced the highest voltage was Chromolaena odorata, an invasive plant also available in abundance on the farm.
Dzarul traveled close to 9,000 miles from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles to showcase his organic battery at the 2011 Intel ISEF competition. Though his Intel ISEF research did not immediately yield a battery viable for production, he set a goal to continue developing the idea. Now studying science and engineering in college in Malaysia, he hopes to someday patent an eco-friendly, locally sourced organic battery to replace conventional dry cell batteries that pollute the waste stream with mercury and other toxic materials. “When I saw the other students’ projects at ISEF, it really inspired me,” he says. “It made me want to do bigger and better things.”
Traveling to Los Angeles as a finalist in the 2011 Intel ISEF further inspired Dzarul to continue his battery research in college.
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