How Aluminum Cans Can Power a Village

For a thrilling week every summer, explorers arrive by the dozen at NG headquarters for the Explorers Symposium, to meet and inspire each other, to share ideas, and to plan how we can help tell their stories over the coming year.

Photo by Sybille Frütel Culhane

Today was the first day of meetings and it was full of fascinating ideas and great quotes (which you can see featured in tweets from @NatGeoExplorers).

You don’t have to be an explorer to have an influence on this crew though. One of the most mind-blowing moments was when T.H. Culhane walked into the room with a glassfull of soda lighting up a lightbulb. And this didn’t just come out of his head, he got the idea last week when he saw this video, of a kid describing how he turned an aluminum can into a battery:

T.H., being a guy focused on finding cheap, accessible sustainable energy solutions that people anywhere can build for themselves saw this and was inspired. The soda can battery itself was fairly low-powered, but he combined it with another innovation he’d heard of, the “joule thief” which nearly instantaneously takes a weak charge, builds it up and then releases the increased energy.

Using the joule thief setup, he was able to use a “dead” AA battery yielding just 1.2 volts to power a 3 volt LED light.

Combining the joule thief and the aluminum can battery, he has a plan to make electric power accessible to people in some of the most rural places on Earth. In Nepal, for example, where he’d just been helping install solar and biogas generators, they have an almost absurd surplus of aluminum cans from the huge tourist industry around Mt. Everest. Filling these cans with water that has run through wood ash and picked up potassium hydroxide and using a simple electrode such as a brillo pad or pencil lead, people can set up multiple batteries, joule thieves, and LEDs and have enough light to fill a room.

Watch T.H. explain his set up:


From a kid’s video on YouTube to a real-world solution to a major problem faced by millions around the world. That’s the kind of innovation that can happen when curious minds get together, online or in person, or both. The fact that it happened on a Monday bodes well for the rest of this week-long Explorers Symposium. Get updates all week here on Nat Geo NewsWatch and on Twitter @NatGeoExplorers.

T.H. Culhane's alternate setup, using aluminum foil and a steel-wool pad separated by paper towels in a glass of water mixed with a tablespoon of drain-cleaner.



The original photo accompanying this post showed a slightly different set up (seen at right), where Culhane had poured the soda into a glass and added aluminum foil, creating the same effect. The new photo above shows the aluminum can set up as described in the text and videos.



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Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.