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Nashua Students Try Composting For Battery Power

Sheryl Rich-Kern

A team of Nashua High School students is trying to create a bacteria-powered battery that runs off a composter. The team is one of 16 around the country that received up to 10-thousand-dollars in seed money from the Lemelson-MIT Program.

The idea is that students will work on inventions that help under-served communities. But the projects will also help students prepare to work in a high-tech economy. 

"So what we’ve put in here so far is some potting soil, some plant matter, some eggshells, a potato…"

The invention begins with dirt. Lots of it.

A team of six high school students at Nashua North is scooping soil into a large container that previously stored pretzels.

This makeshift composter lined with aluminum foil is a mini prototype of a power generator.  

"the mini-composter, we’ll name it Frank, (laughter) aw, Frank Jr., the mini-composter, do we want to go back into the lab and hook it in to stuff…"

The students are leveraging a basic scientific principal: that bacterium in the organic soil produces electrons as it decomposes.

The idea is to someday be able to harvest those electrons into electrical power that could be used to light homes in rural villages.  To do that, the students are experimenting with how to wire a cheap and portable generator.

Senior Priyanka Satpute is the project’s technical lead.

She says right now they’re working with different mixtures of soil.

"We’re also seeing if even we can find sources of even manure – I know that sounds icky, but our main goal of this whole project is to help lesser developed countries have simple things such as lighting in their houses. Because one of the major roadblocks to education is the lack of electrification. Children cannot study at night if there is no light."

As Satpute speaks, it’s easy to forget that she’s a high school student.

In fact, the spunk, altruism and smarts of the team’s six members more closely resemble that of a group of scientists at a start-up firm.

But as Mary Stewart, one of the team’s two advisors, says, they manage setbacks differently:

"I don’t think they’ve learned to be constrained by what they’ve been taught, or what they perceive should be a certain way. And because they don’t know that something can’t work, they go at it and often find that a way that it can work."

For instance, Stewart says the group has moved away from trying to retrofit a battery inside a composter because that would make the device too bulky.

Now they want to make a battery that hooks up to a composter.

When that battery runs out of power, a villager could dump what’s left in the composter and use it to grow food before refilling it with new compost.

Stewart says they’re still a few iterations away from a final product.

High school senior Meghan Dezurick is the biotech whiz of the group.

Her independent study was the catalyst for the team’s bacteria-powered generator.

"This is something I had been toying with for a while and doing tests on and I thought this would be a really good idea because of the effectiveness it would have on the world."

She admits that handing the reigns of her self-directed study over to a group of six took some getting used to:

"It’s taught me that I don’t want to run a company. I want to stick purely to doing science. I don’t care about money.  My goal in life is to do stuff to help people, without having to worry about money, really."

As with any real-world situation, the students are learning to monitor a budget and meet a project deadline.

Priyanka Satpute  admits there’s stress, but also fun:

"At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of nerds. And I love saying that because we just love the whole problem-solving process. We love getting our hands dirty and building things and testing things and looking at numbers."

In June, the Nashua High School North team will showcase their invention at the EurekaFest at MIT in Cambridge.

In  the fall, the students will head off to different colleges.  They’d like to find a way to patent their project and eventually sell it to non-profits for a very low price.