Science & Technology

A fellow parent tagged me on a great Facebook thread the other day. Her query echoed a question parents frequently ask me: What do you do when other people’s rules for their kids are different, especially when your kids and their kids are playing on the same digital playground?

“I am getting tired of my sixth-grader (11-year-old) asking for a Snapchat account. She claims all her friends have had one for at least a year or more, and feels embarrassed to tell them she isn’t allowed to when they ask. According to her, and based on the number of her friends with multiple social media accounts, it is the norm in this community to allow middle-school age kids to have Snapchat and other social accounts despite that it is supposed to be restricted from those under the age of 13. Am I being overprotective? Is my daughter really the only one without Snapchat? How do other parents feel about this?”

When it comes to technology and kids, other parents can complicate things. Even if you feel like you’re in control of what happens in your home, the parents of your child’s peers will undoubtedly come into play.

What do you do when other parents have different technology rules for their children?

How many times have you heard, “But all my friends have iPhones!” Or, “Gabe’s mom lets him use Snapchat — why can’t I?” We may have perceived our own parents to be strict or lenient relative to others. What time was your curfew? Were you allowed to have friends over — or to visit their houses unsupervised?

The difference now is that there’s more of a range of opinions and values when it comes to the issues that technology adds to the traditional challenges of parenting. Much of kids’ digital world is about social connections, so the perception of being left out can be heightened in relation to participating in group texting, online games and social media.

What do we do when the parents of our kids’ friends have different rules? How do we manage this in a practical, unemotional way?

Remove judgment: I work with families, and I see how hard it is for parents to talk to other parents about their experiences. There is a lot of judgment and negativity — both internal and external. Doubt creeps in: “Am I doing the right thing?” We are also quick to condemn: “I would never allow that for my kids.” Everyone wants to do right by their kids, and everyone has different values. Start with a little empathy. Try to see it from another parent’s perspective — maybe you will change your view. Regardless, it will help you to understand their choices and to manage the effect it has on your kids.

Communicate openly: If everyone strives for open communication about parenting and technology, and takes a community-oriented approach when we are concerned about children’s behaviour, we’ll all benefit. Most parents are happy to share their experiences. Parenting is difficult, and it’s good to find someone who can relate. It can be reassuring to talk to other parents who have handled a similar situation in a similar way. Take it as your responsibility to start the conversation.

Ditch the guilt: Learn from what other parents are doing, but don’t let the comparison make you feel guilty. I’ve seen shame surface in parents because they think that everyone’s ahead of, or doing better than, them. We each have our own parenting styles. It helps to see what others are doing to establish a frame of reference. But make sure that you are not succumbing to the negative side of comparison. Yes, we all make parenting mistakes — but guilt rarely helps.

 

 

Make confident decisions: Your values are your values. Just as you try not to judge other parents, you should also feel free from incoming judgment. You are a savvy parent with lots of life experiences, and you do what’s right for your family. So feel confident about your choices, and don’t let them be driven by others. As much as you can, don’t let others take these important decisions out of your hands. You are strong and in control — even if it doesn’t seem that way sometimes!

Set “trust milestones”: If your child is claiming to be the last among her peers not to have a cell phone or another device, you can strategise with her about other ways to maintain contact with her friends. Make it clear when you expect her to get a phone and under what conditions. For instance, maybe there’s a “trust milestone” for her to achieve before you’ll grant permission, such as contributing financially to the monthly plan, or adhering to certain rules about its use.

Create a community: Part of being a tech-positive parent is reaching out to others who are thoughtfully engaging in these questions. Find the parents who see themselves as tech-mentors. Is there a mom or dad who knows a lot about Minecraft who can help you set up your personal server? Is there someone at work who feels confident about social media and can coach you on privacy settings so you feel more confident about what your children are sharing (or not sharing) with the world?

How to build your “village”

Dealing with the decisions of other parents can be difficult. We can try to find a more compatible social circle, but our kids choose their friends and we don’t have much control over it. With each new friend come new parents, and new rules that are sure to influence your family.

I look at everything through the lens of mentorship. We are better parents, teachers and community leaders when we mentor our kids. When we teach them to make good decisions, we are empowering them. We need to be good mentors to each other, as well. Take this on. Make the first move. Be the mentor in your community.

Start with one subject that you know really well. Raise a question around the issue. Listen to the comments. Respond thoughtfully. Opening a discussion is the first step.

Use email, a Google group, or a Facebook group, all of which are easy to set up and free. They also allow people to meet virtually and asynchronously, without the hassle of scheduling in-person meetings. Talking face-to-face is valuable, but it can feel like a luxury in our action-packed lives.

There are times when you will wish you could move your kids to another community (or that the parents whose rules you like the least would move far away). Establishing an intentional community can help you feel more empowered around what happens with you and your kids in their digital world, even when the “village” is not making things simple.

Devorah Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” a guide for mentoring digital kids. Her curriculum for grades four to eight is called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

KUWAIT: Where is the Pokemon? Where is it hiding? How can I catch it? These are questions that are raised by users of the newly-launched Pokemon Go game which has taken the world by storm. The wildly popular mobile app, which is based on a 1990s Nintendo game, has created a global frenzy as players roam the real world looking for virtual cartoon monsters.

The smartphone game, which lets the user hunt virtual creatures called Pokemon in real life via an augmented reality platform, has already dominated download charts in the US and Australia and, drove a lot of young people crazy trying to hunt down these pocket monsters.

Pokemon are spotted in the wild, and are generated based on their geographical habitat. For example, if the Pokemon is a water type, it would be found by the sea. If its type was rock or ground, it would be found near deserts, while grass-type Pokemon are often common in parks or green areas.

People capture the Pokemon and gain experience points to reach higher levels. They have an option of joining one of three teams in the game, which allow the player to conquer gyms that are placed randomly in the environment and compete with other teams.

Pokemon Go is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game which is developed by Niantic and was released in July 2016 for iOS and Android devices. There are about 9.55 million active users in the US only. Thus it has overcome the active users of twitter and is expected to outgrow every social media.

And if you insist on playing the game, there are many guidelines that you may need to consider while playing including making sure you are wearing appropriate footwear, sneakers or walking shoes that are ideal, ditch the cotton socks as cotton absorbs moisture and get sun protection.

Among the most important tips while using the smart game is to use sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays. While the Pokemon players are out hunting for the creatures, they are advised to keep drinking water, particularly during summer, as it is easy to get dehydrated, doing blister patrol, reapplying sunscreen and remaining aware of the surroundings.

No go
In Kuwait, the country has said ‘no’ to Pokemon Go in certain places. The Interior Ministry issued a statement warning users of the smash mobile phone application from taking pictures of any vital government, military or security location. It also warned users not to chase pocket monsters at mosques, shopping centers, malls and oil installations. Interior Ministry’s Undersecretary Lt Gen Suleiman Al-Fahad has warned that there will be no excuses for anyone claiming ignorance of the law.

Kuwait’s Ministry of Communications has also warned smartphone users against downloading popular smartphone game Pokemon Go. Assistant Undersecretary Hamad Al-Qattan said the ministry was discussing ‘means of protection’ from such games with the Communications and Information Technology Authority.

He added that games like Pokemon Go may cause harm to its users in particular and society in general. He pointed out that users of the app might be in danger of potential road accidents if they use the app while driving or crossing roads.

Media Professor at Kuwait University Dr Khaled Al-Qahs said while commenting on the new trend from a media perspective that this game resembles other games that emerge every now and then, expecting the heavy demand on it would diminish with time.

He added that the game has been exploited for a commercial reason and has also conquered the virtual world, saying that the game would have never been given such popularity if the social media outlets did not constitute as an incubator for it.

From a social perspective, Kuwait University’s Sociology Professor Dr Saud Abdulaziz Al-Ghanem argued that once the Pokemon game user starts playing the game, he or she separates from his or her real world and indulges into the virtual world. “He starts running after a picture that only appears on his or her mobile screen, thus, becoming unable to take decisive decisions or actions because of his or her indulgence into the virtual world of the Pokemon,” he said.

Social isolation
Asked about the social dangers that may arise as a result of the game, Dr Saud pointed out that the game users may suffer social isolation for being attached to the game rather than the real world and for searching for virtual creatures which vary in shape and colors, thus, forcing the game users to escape the real world and indulge into the virtual world instead.

However, with the temperature in Kuwait exceeding 50 C degrees in the shade, will the game still be attractive and fascinating to its fans? Young people are seen roaming the streets, mosques, malls and at the sea searching for the little creatures, a matter that can cause unwanted harms.

Though Pokemon Go has not officially come to nations in the Arabian Gulf, many have downloaded the app. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates also have warned users to be careful while chasing digital critters in the augmented reality game.

The game requires the phone to transmit its location via GPS and uses its camera, a matter that prompted the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to warn that the game violates privacy and could lead ‘criminals’ to spread viruses.

Lastly, the Pokemon Go game has really turned the virtual world upside down with millions of people around the world becoming addicted to this game, whereas there are thousands of virtual games which have not got this popularity. – KUNA

So I may have run inside the men's restroom today. No, it wasn't like the ladies' room was full and I had an emergency. But I had to go in there... to catch a Pokemon. Because I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was.

Such is the dilemma faced by Pokémon Go players around the world, and now, in Pakistan.

For those who don't know about Pokémon (because you've been sleeping under a rock for the past two decades), Pokémon, short for Pocket Monsters, is a Nintendo franchise that started out as a video game in 1996 and became a popular TV series that shows a world where these creatures live. The players act as 'trainers'; they have to catch the Pokémon and train them for battles against other trainers.

With the launch of Pokémon GO, old and new Pokémon fans like myself are happy because to catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause. We get to finally travel across the land, searching far and wide (okay okay, I'll stop! But admit it, you were singing it too) - and that too literally!

 

The free-to-play augmented reality game actually has you getting off your seats and running around finding Pokémon. The game transforms your current environment into a fantastical world inhabited by Pokémon. How? It accesses your camera and GPS to place its animated figures in your space.

You're the trainer and your phone is like the glasses that lets you see nearby Pokemon.

I had to have this. I just had to. I grew up on Pokemon! I've played most of the Pokémon games out there, from cards to video games, but this one's different. The draw of Pokémon Go is that it gets me up and moving around, not just sitting in one place with a joypad. Who'd have thought that all you needed to be a Pokemon trainer was a good internet connection and GPS.

 
Twenty minutes in, I was hooked

 

The game is simple in terms of gameplay; your phone shows you if there is a Pokemon nearby and you have to go to that location, and your trainer character moves as you do. Once you locate a Pokémon, you try to catch it by throwing a Poké ball with the flick of your finger. The more Pokémon you catch, the larger your collection and the more you level up as a trainer. You can train your Pokémon, have them battle for you and even trade it with other trainers.

Pokémon Go has not officially been launched in Pakistan, but that's only the first of the challenges of playing the game here.

Here's a little news flash. This is Karachi. Not really the most walking-with-your-phone-out friendly place in the world. And since it is augmented reality, your GPS uses landmarks and turns them into Pokestops (where you replenish your weapons, i.e., Poké balls) and gyms (where you train).

 
Can you guess these locations?

 

Do you know where the nearest pokestop to my place is? A masjid. Yeap. So far, it's either mosques or roundabouts. Considering the security issue, I highly doubt people will be roaming around chowrangis in order to replenish their stock... because... there will be people with guns looking forward to replenish their stock... I did find a way though, just drive by pokestops very slowly.

Another frustration of playing the game in Pakistan? People don't understand why the heck you want to dart into their personal spaces with your phone out. I had a friend begging the manager of a restaurant to let him in the kitchen because there was a Snorlax in there. Another almost went inside Imam Barah because it was showing as a pokestop.

The app also tracks how far you've walked for some tasks, like hatching an egg. That seems rather problematic. A number of female players are annoyed as they have no place to walk around or go out to. I had found a Machamp within my apartments and asked Dad if he wanted to walk with me. He was amused but raised a good question, "What about those kids who don't live in apartment complexes?"

 
Well, they did warn us...

 

Even for guys, let's be honest, no roundabout is secure enough to have your phone out. A number of things can go wrong from mobile snatchers to security at a VIP movement thinking you're up to something. When a friend joked 'good thing jaywalking isn't an issue here,' it genuinely made me concerned about the risk of kids running across the street carelessly. No Charmander is worth running around Boat Basin, people!

But Pokemon Go also has its own charm of playing it in Pakistan. I have friends traveling to Seaview to find water-based Pokemon (GPS does that too, the Pokemon you find will vary with your location) and a park near a cousin's place is a 'gym' so he has been very social with his friends and family because we all need to train there.

I made a trip to the mall and noticed many kids running around staring at their phones and, knowing what they were up to, I asked them why they came there. More than half said they decided to accompany their family's shopping trip. Good job Pokemon, you're bonding families together!

Once the app officially launches here, I'm sure there will be better locations selected. There is also the issue of proper internet connection because sometimes you'll be on a Pokemon's heels and the glitch will have it get away.

The game needs some work in terms of glitches and more gameplay, but it is an amazing experience. My colleagues definitely got a kick out of me running around the office chasing after a Growleth. I don't mind... I know it's my destiny! Yes... I had to...

Overall, I think it's fun and definitely a unique experience. Nintendo definitely found a way to get some exercise into our routines and I can't wait for the official launch 'cause I gotta catch 'em all!

SAN FRANCISCO: Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system debuts today, as the longtime leader in PC software struggles to carve out a new role in a world where people increasingly rely on smartphones, tablets and information stored online. No one’s expected to line up overnight for Windows 10, the way people did 20 years ago for Windows 95. But Microsoft is counting on tens or even hundreds of millions of people to download its latest release for free in the coming months. The launch will be accompanied by a global marketing campaign for an event the company hopes will be pivotal – both for its own future and for a vast audience of computer users around the world. Windows 10 is coming to PCs and tablets first, but it’s also designed to run phones, game consoles and even holographic headsets. It has new features, a streamlined Web browser called Edge and a desktop version of Cortana, the online assistant that is Microsoft’s answer to Google Now and Apple’s Siri. Still, the company insists Windows 10 will seem familiar to users of Windows 7, the sixyear- old operating system still running on most PCs. Microsoft and PC makers want to erase the memory of the last big update, 2012’s Windows 8, which alienated many with its jarring, unwieldy design. Microsoft skipped the name Windows 9, as if to distance itself further from the last release. While many analysts believe Windows 8 made sagging PC sales even worse, it’s unclear if Windows 10 will spur the industry back to growth. Here is a look at the launch and why it matters.

What happens this week? Microsoft plans promotional events in several cities today, tied to a global ad campaign and a series of charitable donations. About 5 million people who enrolled in an earlier test program will be able to download Windows 10 right away. The company is also offering Windows 10 as a free download, any time over the next year, to anyone who has the Home or Pro versions of Windows 7 or 8 (but not the Enterprise versions used by big organizations). Some may not get it the first day; Microsoft says it will deliver downloads in waves, to ensure things go smoothly, but it hasn’t said how long that will take. Retailers such as Best Buy, Staples and Wal-Mart will have some desktops and laptops with Windows 10 already installed. More models are coming.

Why is Microsoft giving Windows 10 for free? The company wants to get the new software on as many devices as possible. Microsoft needs a large pool of users to convince independent programmers that it’s worth their time to build useful or entertaining apps for Windows 10 devices. Executives also believe that if people are exposed to the latest and best Windows, they’re more likely to try other Microsoft products on PCs and mobile devices. CEO Satya Nadella says he wants to have 1 billion devices running Windows 10 in three years. Microsoft estimates there are 1.5 billion people who currently use some kind of Windows. Rather than charging them to upgrade, as Microsoft used to do, it’s embracing the free download model pioneered by Apple and Google.

How will Microsoft make money? Microsoft will still collect licensing fees from PC makers that install Windows 10 on new machines. In recent years, most consumers have waited until they bought a new computer to get the latest Windows. Microsoft also makes money from selling Windows and other software to large businesses and organizations. In addition, Microsoft is counting on Windows 10 to spur more use of other services. Microsoft makes money from selling advertising for its Bing search engine, and Windows 10 comes with many apps that steer people to Bing. The company also collects fees from people who use premium versions of its Office software, OneDrive cloud storage and Skype.

Why does this matter to consumers? Microsoft says Windows 10 is designed for the way people use computers today – with a faster Web browser and features that make it easier to start tasks on a PC and then switch to a hand-held device. (Apple and Google tout similar features in their software.) Windows 10 also lets users log in with their face, iris or thumbprint, instead of remembering passwords, though this works only with computers equipped with the right hardware. Most PC users are still working with Windows 7, thanks to Windows 8’s unpopularity. But Microsoft plans to phase out maintenance and security support for Windows 7 over the next five years, and for Windows 8 by 2023, as it did with the older Windows XP. Still, there’s no need to panic about upgrading right away.

Why is it important to the tech industry? The growth in mobile devices has caused PC sales to decline for more than three years, hurting manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard and companies like Microsoft and Intel, whose products are used with PCs. Windows 10 won’t make people give up their hand-held gadgets, but it’s part of Nadella’s strategy to reposition Microsoft for a world where people use multiple devices. PC makers are hoping he succeeds. Jeff Barney, who runs Toshiba’s consumer PC business, said the new software is easier to use than Windows 8 and will complement hardware advances in Toshiba’s newest machines. Although Barney isn’t expecting a big rush to stores today, “over time, I think we’re going to see a positive trend in sales.” — AP

Facebook has scrapped its previously unknown plans to build a satellite, according to a report by Amir Efrati in The Information.

The satellite, had it been built, could have cost an estimated $500 million. The plan was to use it to help provide cheap internet access in the developing world. But this pricetag was apparently prohibitive, and the scheme has since been abandoned — before it was ever even announced.

Facebook has been exploring ways expanding internet access — and along with it, access to its products — in emerging markets. One of the key ways is Internet.org, a Facebook-led initiative involving multiple companies to subsidise data costs in certain countries.

But not all of Facebook's efforts in the area are related to Internet.org. For example, it announced Facebook Lite last week, an ultra-lightweight Android app designed to make the social network easier to access on low bandwidth connections. That had nothing to do withInternet.org.

Similarly, while Mark Zuckerberg had openly discussed using satellites to help with Internet.org, this new, cancelled scheme was apparently unrelated.

The Information's report, based on "a person with direct knowledge of the project and a person briefed about it," says it would have been a geostationary satellite that could have helped provide internet access to dozens of countries. Instead, it may now lease a satellite off another provider, if it does decide to push ahead with its plans.

Facebook's plans to bring internet access to the emerging markets have the potential to positively transform the countries targeted — but there's also a direct financial incentive for the social networking giant. By providing the tools required to access the web, it can ensure it has first access to previously untapped markets of billions of people.

BEIJING: A pilot said yesterday that he is anxious but excited about flying a solar plane solo from China to Hawaii on the longest leg of the first attempt to fly around the world without a drop of fuel. AndrÈ Borschberg, 62, is due to fly over the Pacific Ocean for five days and five nights in the plane that has more than 17,000 solar cells on its wings to power its motors and recharge its batteries for nighttime flying.

The Solar Impulse 2 set off from Abu Dhabi in March and has stopped in Oman, India and Myanmar. Borschberg and another Swiss pilot, Bertrand Piccard, are taking turns flying the single- seater Swiss plane during a five-month journey to promote renewable energy use. The 8,175-kilometer flight from Nanjing in eastern China to Hawaii - which may take off Thursday, depending on weather - is the seventh of 12 flights. None of the previous legs were more than 20 hours - compared with an estimated flight time of 120 hours to Hawaii. “It’s the most challenging, yes, in the sense that we never flew over the oceans,” Borschberg said in a phone interview from Nanjing. “There are of course also question marks with the type of airplane we have, is it capable to fly solo with this type of energy, and of course the challenge is on the pilot side as well ... can I stay alert for this leg and be able to pilot this airplane, can I keep my energy at the right level, can I keep my spirits, my mindset to get this airplane to Hawaii.”

Cockpit’s changing seasons
The aircraft will climb to the altitude of Mount Everest, almost 9,000 meters during the day to get more sunlight, recharge the batteries and store more energy. At nighttime, the plane will fly lower, at a minimum of 1,000 meters The pilot will experience temperatures ranging from 35 degrees Celsius (in the morning to minus 20 degrees Celsius early in the evening while the plane is still high up. “It’s winter and summer every day in the cockpit,” said Borschberg, who flew military jets for 25 years as a reserve pilot in the Swiss army and is an entrepreneur by profession. He plans to take periods of rest of 20 minutes up to eight times a day, but said he doesn’t know if the weather or turbulence will let him. Borschberg said the plane has a “virtual co-pilot” that is a stabilization tool.

It will sound an alarm to wake him if the aircraft does something unplanned. The cockpit is too small to stand in, although the seat can recline into a horizontal position to allow him to lie down and practice yoga. He also plans to use breathing techniques and meditation to help him through the long journey. He said that when flying, he focuses on how he feels as well as the situation in the air, so that the journey wasn’t just about exploring how to cross the Pacific using solar energy. “You don’t have the pressure of time so with this airplane you can really live the present moment,” he said. “It’s almost an inner voyage, at the end it’s not so much exploring the Pacific ... it’s also exploring myself.” The Si2 aircraft has a wingspan of 72 meters, spanning larger than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. At about 2,300 kilograms, the Si2 weighs about as much as a minivan or mid-sized truck. After Hawaii, the plane is slated to stop in Phoenix and New York before flying over the Atlantic Ocean. It will then stop either in southern Europe or North Africa, depending on weather conditions. —AP

With a simple trick, the humble spud can be made into a battery, so could potato powered homes catch on?

Mashed, boiled, baked or fried? You probably have a preference for your potatoes. Haim Rabinowitch, however, likes his spuds “hacked”.

For the past few years, researcher Rabinowitch and colleagues have been pushing the idea of “potato power” to deliver energy to people cut off from electricity grids. Hook up a spud to a couple of cheap metal plates, wires and LED bulbs, they argue, and it could provide lighting to remote towns and villages around the world.

They’ve also discovered a simple but ingenious trick to make potatoes particularly good at producing energy. A single potato can power enough LED lamps for a room for 40 days,” claims Rabinowitch, who is based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The idea may seem absurd, yet it is rooted in sound science. Still, Rabinowitch and his team have discovered that actually launching potato power in the real world is much more complex than it first appears.

While Rabinowitch and team have found a way to make potatoes produce more power than usual, the basic principles are taught in high school science classes, to demonstrate how batteries work.

To make a battery from organic material, all you need is two metals – an anode, which is the negative electrode, such as zinc, and a cathode, the positively charged electrode, such as copper. The acid inside the potato forms a chemical reaction with the zinc and copper, and when the electrons flow from one material to another, energy is released. 

This was discovered by Luigi Galvani in 1780 when he connected two metals to the legs of a frog, causing its muscles to twitch. But you can put many materials between these two electrodes to get the same effect. Alexander Volta, around the time of Galvani, used saltwater-soaked paper. Others have made “earth batteries” using two metal plates and a pile of dirt, or a bucket of water.

Super spuds

Potatoes are often the preferred vegetable of choice for teaching high school science students these principles. Yet to the surprise of Rabinowitch, no one had scientifically studied spuds as an energy source. So in 2010, he decided to give it a try, along with PhD student Alex Goldberg, and Boris Rubinsky of the University of California, Berkeley.

“We looked at 20 different types of potatoes,” explains Goldberg, “and we looked at their internal resistance, which allows us to understand how much energy was lost by heat.”

They found that by simply boiling the potatoes for eight minutes, it broke down the organic tissues inside the potatoes, reducing resistance and allowing for freer movement of electrons– thus producing more energy. They also increased the energy output by slicing the potato into four or five pieces, each sandwiched by a copper and zinc plate, to make a series. “We found we could improve the output 10 times, which made it interesting economically, because the cost of energy drops down,” says Goldberg.

“It’s low voltage energy,” says Rabinowitch, “but enough to construct a battery that could charge mobile phones or laptops in places where there is no grid, no power connection.”

Their cost analyses suggested that a single boiled potato battery with zinc and copper electrodes generates portable energy at an estimated $9 per kilowatt hour, which is 50-fold cheaper than a typical 1.5 volt AA alkaline cell or D cell battery, which can cost $49–84 per kilowatt hour. It’s also an estimated six times cheaper than standard kerosene lamps used in the developing world.

Which raises an important question – why isn’t the potato battery already a roaring success?

In 2010, the world produced a staggering 324,181,889 tonnes of potatoes. They are the world’s number one non-grain crop, in 130 countries, and a hefty source of starch for billions around the world. They are cheap, store easily, and last for a long time. 

With 1.2 billion people in the world lacking access to electricity, a simple potato could be the answer– or so the researchers thought. “We thought organisations would be interested,” says Rabinowitch. “We thought politicians in India would give them out with their names inscribed on them. They cost less than a dollar.” 

Yet three years on since their experiment, why haven’t governments, companies or organisations embraced potato batteries? “The simple answer is they don’t even know about it,” reasons Rabinowitch. But it may be more complicated than that.

First, there’s the issue of using a food for energy. Olivier Dubois, senior natural resources officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says that using food for energy – like sugar cane for biofuels – must avoid depleting food stocks and competing with farmers.

“You first need to look at: are there enough potatoes to eat? Then, are we not competing with farmers making income from selling potatoes?” he explains. “So if eating potatoes is covered, selling potatoes is covered, and there’s some potatoes left, then yes, it can work”

In a country like Kenya, the potato is the second most important food for families after maize. Smallholder farmers produced around 10 million tonnes of potatoes this year, yet around 10-20% were lost in post-harvest waste due to lack of access to markets, poor storage conditions, and other issues, according to Elmar Schulte–Geldermann, potato science leader for sub–Saharan Africa at the International Potato Center in Nairobi, Kenya. The potatoes that don’t make it to the market could easily be turned into batteries. 

Pithy answer

Yet in Sri Lanka, for instance, the locally available potatoes are rare and expensive. So a team of scientists at the University of Kelaniya recently decided to try the experiment with something more widely available, and free – plantain piths (stems).

Physicist KD Jayasuriya and his team found that the boiling technique produced a similar efficiency increase for plantains – and the best battery performance was obtained by chopping the plantain pith after boiling.

With the boiled piths, they found they could power a single LED for more than 500 hours, provided it is prevented from drying out. “I think the potato has slightly better current, but the plantain pith is free, it’s something we throw away,” says Jayasuriya.

Despite all this, some are sceptical of the feasibility of potato power. “In reality, the potato battery is essentially like a regular battery you’d buy at the store,” says Derek Lovley at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It’s just using a different matrix.” While the potato helps to prevent energy being lost to heat, it is not the source of the energy – that’s actually extracted via the corrosion of the zinc. “It’s sacrificial – the metal is degrading over time,” says Lovley. This means you’d have to replace the zinc – and of course the potato or plantain pith – over time.

Still, zinc is quite cheap in most developing countries. And Jayasuriya argues that it could still be more cost effective than a kerosene lamp. A zinc electrode that lasts about five months would cost about the same as a litre of kerosene, which fuels the average family home in Sri Lanka for two days. You could also use other electrodes, like magnesium or iron. 

But potato advocates must surmount another problem before their idea catches on: consumer perception of potatoes. Compared with modern technologies like solar power, potatoes are perhaps less desirable as an energy source.

Gaurav Manchanda, founder of One Degree Solar, which sells micro-solar home systems in Kenya, says people buy their products for more reasons than efficiency and price. “These are all consumers at the end of the day. They need to see the value in it, not only in terms of performance, but status,” he explains. Basically, some people might not want to show off their potato battery to impress a neighbor.

Still, it cannot be denied that the potato battery idea works, and it appears cheap. Advocates of potato power will no doubt continue to keep chipping away.

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