With a cross-disciplinary team, a LEAP student develops his childhood dream into a promising power source

By Patrick L. Kennedy

Hatched in a ten-year-old’s kitchen and honed in Boston University’s cutting-edge makerspaces, a device that harvests electricity from algae has won first prize in the 2024 Dean’s Imagineering Competition. The contest encourages the ideals of the Societal Engineer by giving students the opportunity to turn original ideas into entrepreneurial products with real-world impact.

Jonathan Miller became obsessed with microbial fuel cells at age 10, after seeing a simple one in a science fair. “I would regularly trash the family kitchen,” he says, “attempting to make mud or algae batteries.” As a young adult, Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology before returning to the science of renewable energy via the Late Entry Accelerated Program at BU’s College of Engineering, where he is earning a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering (ECE).

During a gym workout his first week at BU, Miller struck up conversation with mechanical engineering (ME) junior Gustav Yang. Miller shared his concept for the first microbial fuel cell that would generate electricity directly from algae using cost-effective and non-toxic materials. Before long, Miller and Yang assembled a team including ME junior Rejwan Himel and two CAS juniors, Abigail Hassan (political science) and Mohammed Warde (biology).

microbial fuel cell
The Green Machine harnesses solar power by way of the natural metabolic processes of the microalgae Chlorella vulgaris.

In October, they entered their project, “Green Machine,” in the Imagineering Competition. Over the course of the academic year, competing teams use machinery and tools in the Binoy K. Singh Imagineering Laboratory (SILab), along with a small stipend for additional materials, to design and build original technological solutions to societal problems. Green Machine and other teams also used the Bioengineering & Technology Entrepreneurial Center (BTEC) to run experiments and garnered support from the Engineering Student Innovation Fund.

“This project took a tremendous amount of research and time,” says Miller. “It is an algae microbial fuel cell solar panel, in that it harvests electricity from the sun through photosynthesis and generates electricity by the algae giving off electrons onto the anode through reduction, oxidation and photosynthesis.” The result is an affordable, carbon-negative form of renewable energy.

Nine teams presented their projects in mid April before a panel of judges consisting of Professor of the Practice Diane Joseph-McCarthy (BME, Chem), Senior Associate Dean for Finance and Administration Richard Lally, and Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE).

For their creativity, the quality of their prototype, the functionality of the project and its potential to impact society, the judges awarded the Green Machine team first prize, $3,000.

“I will continue developing and perfecting my prototypes in BTEC, upscale them, and make a product that can be used commercially,” says Miller. “My vision is [that] this technology will be used as home solar panels at a fraction of [today’s] cost; on city buildings to generate electricity in addition to cleaning city air; [as] a huge farm that could be used to power cities; and as a DIY instructional manual that people in remote areas can follow to create their own algae fuel cells to generate electricity.”

Second prize—$1,500—went to BME juniors Yash Patel, Luca Pungan, and Nikita Vinay Kishan for BreatheRight, a respiratory function monitoring device for asthma patients.

Several teams won $250 awards for best-in-class projects: ME seniors Nathan Sun, Zhonghao Wei, Zizai Ma, Yiming Yu, and Peng Qiu; BME junior Everett Guermont; and ECE first-year students Soud Alkharji, Charlie Van Hook, and Arav Tyagi.

From left, Green Machine team members Jonathan Miller and Abigail Hassan with Imagineering Competition judges Thomas Little, Diane Joseph-McCarthy, and Richard Lally.