While most everyone else is focusing on ever bigger wind, solar, and tidal energy farms to provide clean power for the future, a tiny startup in Sierra Leone has figured out how to capture the vibrational energy that is always around us – and bring light into the darkness.
Jeremiah Thoronka of Optim Energy, inventor of the piezeolectric power source that runs underneath the roads in Sierra Leone. Photo: IRENA, via Twitter
Most of those reading this do not know what it is like to be without light.
In the shanty structures on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, there are few electrical wires and those who live “off the grid” do it because they have no choice.
They have a name for it: energy poverty.
Those who live there make do with either kerosene stoves and lamps, or by chopping down trees to use the wood for cooking and for light. That the existing ways also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere when many families burn either of these fuel sources is not even relevant. That the deforestation which comes from this daily promotes flooding and landslides, when few trees are there to hold the land in place, also does not matter.
It is what the people must do to survive.
The primary alternative to much of this in Africa’s poorest regions is the use of small solar lanterns. They do provide light but have no capability of providing much more in the way of scalable power – for most.
It is from these roots that Jeremiah Thoronka, who grew up in this environment, came up with an idea for renewable energy generation from an unlikely source: people who are just walking around.
The idea he came up with was based on a simple core concept. That concept revolved around finding a way to harness the energy in everyday movement, even vibrations in the ground, for an electrical power source. He broadened the aim of his invention to find ways to convert heat and pressure into power as well.
Innovations like this have been used for many decades as the power source behind so-called kinetic watches. Unlike traditional “automatic” watches, which store power in a spring that winds as the person who wears it walks, these kinetic watches allow a moving weight inside the watch to generate electricity just as it moves. The watch stores that energy often in a small capacitor rather than a chemical battery. The capacitor then can be discharged slowly to provide power to the internal movement which controls positioning and motion of the watch hands.
With this as background, while Thoronka was just 17 and a student at Rwanda’s African Leadership University, he invented and built a piezoelectric device which could pick up small movement, pressure, and heat changes, and convert those micro-differentials into electrical current. He then installed the device under a road where vehicles of all kinds and people walking were constantly moving about above the ground. Below the ground, the device was able to generate electrical current using only the natural vibrations happening slightly above where the device was positioned.
With the permission of authorities in his home area of Kuntoluh, Thoronka installed two of his devices in the region where he lived, under a roadway nearby. That device, combined with battery backups, is now generating power to 1,500 people in 150 households, and supporting 15 schools, with over 9,000 students, all at zero cost to them and with virtually no maintenance.
Based on the pilot project in Kuntoluh, Thoronka established a startup business based on the core ideas.
The concept of capturing micro-energy from the piezoelectric devices has the potential of scaling up to a highly profitably, zero emissions, and endlessly renewable power source, thanks to its reliance solely on vibrations from everyday traffic and individuals just walking around.