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Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!

Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This science project requires specialty electronics items. A Science Buddies kit is available. See the Materials and Equipment list for details.
Cost Low ($20 - $50)
Safety Do not eat the potatoes after they have been used as batteries.

Abstract

Imagine telling your friends about your latest science project: using a battery to make a light turn on. You might get some blank stares...sounds a little boring and basic, right? Now tell them you will do it with a potato! Yes, you can actually turn fruits and vegetables into electric power sources! Batteries power many things around you, including cell phones, wireless video game controllers, and smoke detectors. In this science project, you will learn about the basics of battery science and use potatoes to make a simple battery to power a small light and a buzzer.

Objective

Make batteries by pushing zinc and copper electrodes into potatoes, then investigate how to combine them in series and in parallel to power a buzzer and an LED.

Credits

Ben Finio, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Energy_p010.shtml?from=AAE>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, October 6). Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!. Retrieved November 1, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Energy_p010.shtml?from=AAE

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Last edit date: 2014-10-06

Introduction

There are many types of batteries, ranging from tiny watch and hearing aid batteries that are just a few millimeters wide, to the normal AA batteries you use in many household electronic devices, to the large batteries you find under the hood of a car. Did you know that you can also use a potato as a battery? That might sound weird, but believe it or not, you can actually use a potato as an electrical battery to power small devices. To understand how, first you will need to learn a little more about batteries.

Batteries are containers that store energy, which can be used to make electricity. This method of storing energy allows us to make portable electronic devices (imagine what a pain it would be if everything had to be plugged into a wall outlet to work!). There are many different types of batteries, but they all depend on some sort of chemical reaction to generate electricity. The chemical reaction typically occurs between two pieces of metal, called electrodes, and a liquid or paste, called an electrolyte. It turns out that the moisture inside a potato works pretty well as an electrolyte, so you just need to add some metal electrodes to a potato, and you have a battery! Note: You do not need to understand the details of the chemical reaction in order to do this science project. If you want to learn more, do additional research about "battery chemistry."

Next, you need to understand some basic concepts about electricity. The flow of electricity is called an electrical current, which is measured in a unit called amperes (also called amps for short). The symbol for amperes is A. A common analogy used for electrical current is to imagine water flowing through a pipe. The faster the water flows, the more "current" there is.

Electrical current cannot just flow on its own; it needs something to "push" it. Voltage (also referred to as electric potential) is what pushes electrical current through wires. Voltage is measured in volts, and the symbol for volts is V. Using the water analogy, voltage is like the pressure that pushes the water. Higher pressure will push the water faster, generating more current.

Finally, electrical resistance resists the flow of current, making it harder for electricity to flow. Resistance is measured in ohms, and the symbol for ohms is Ω. As resistance increases, it takes more voltage to push the same amount of current. Think of resistance like a pipe that is clogged with debris; the more clogged the pipe is, the harder it will be to push water through.

An electrical circuit is like a path through which the electricity can flow. Circuits can be very complex, with millions and millions of components (like the ones inside your computer), or very simple, with just two components, like a battery and a lightbulb. This science project will focus on simple battery-powered circuits. In general, a battery supplies a certain voltage to a circuit. How much current is drawn out of the battery depends on the load, or what the battery is connected to.

Batteries have positive and negative terminals. In order for electricity to flow in a battery-powered circuit, there must be a complete path from the positive terminal to the negative terminal. This is called a closed circuit. If the path is broken, electricity cannot flow. This is called an open circuit. Figure 1 shows closed and open circuits in a simple circuit with a lightbulb attached to a battery.

open and closed circuit diagrams

Figure 1. In a closed circuit (left), there is a complete path from the positive to the negative terminal of the battery, so electrical current can flow, and the lightbulb will light up (the yellow arrows represent electrical current). In an open circuit (right), one of the wires is disconnected, so the path is broken, which prevents electricity from flowing, so the lightbulb does not light up. Note that most batteries have a plus (+) sign printed on one end, but do not have the minus sign printed on them.

Electricity likes to take the "path of least resistance" (just like water). The lightbulb in Figure 1 has a much higher resistance than the wires; the wires by themselves have a very low resistance. So, if possible, the electricity would prefer to just flow through wires, and avoid the lightbulb altogether (remember the "clogged pipe" analogy; water would rather flow through an empty pipe than through a clogged pipe). So, if a wire is put in the wrong place, this could create a short circuit, as shown in Figure 2. A short circuit can be very dangerous; it can result in a large amount of current being drawn from the battery, which can result in the battery overheating and even exploding! Luckily, vegetable batteries only supply a very small amount of current, so they are safer to work with.

short circuit diagram

Figure 2. A short circuit occurs when the battery's positive and negative terminals are connected directly to each other with electrical wires. In this case, almost all of the current (represented by yellow arrows) flows through the wire instead of through the lightbulb. Electrical wires have very low resistance, so this allows a large amount of current to flow and can be dangerous.

What about circuits that have more than just a single battery? You have probably used many devices that require two or more batteries, like toys or remote controls. Multiple batteries can be connected two different ways: in series or in parallel. When multiple batteries are connected in series, the positive terminal of one battery is connected to the negative terminal of the next battery (and this repeats if there are more than two batteries). When batteries are connected in parallel, all of the positive battery terminals are connected together, and all of the negative battery terminals are connected together. These two configurations are shown in Figure 3.

batteries connected in series

batteries connected in parallel

Figure 3. When batteries are connected in series (top), the positive terminal of one battery is connected to the negative terminal of the next. When they are connected in parallel (bottom), all the positive terminals are connected, and all the negative terminals are connected.

So why would you choose one method over the other? The amount of voltage and current that can be supplied by multiple batteries changes depending on whether you connect them in series or in parallel, and certain electronic devices might require a certain amount of voltage or current. For example, have you ever noticed how a small device like a TV remote or computer mouse might only require two AAA batteries, but a larger toy or flashlight might require four or more AA batteries? This is because each device has different electrical requirements to operate properly.

You can measure how much voltage or current a certain number of batteries can provide by determining the batteries' open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current. A battery's open-circuit voltage is the voltage across a battery's terminals when it is not attached to anything. This is the highest voltage that a battery can supply (the voltage will drop slightly when the battery is attached to a load). The short-circuit current is the current when the battery's terminals are shorted together. This is the highest current the battery can supply (the current will also drop when the battery is attached to a load). How exactly do the voltage and current change when your batteries (potatoes) are configured in series or in parallel? That is what you will investigate as you do this electronics science project!

Technical Note

For circuits with three or more batteries, it is possible to do combinations of series and parallel connections. This introductory science project will only discuss purely parallel or purely series circuits.

That was quite a lengthy introduction to electronics! Do not worry if the introduction seemed like too much information to remember. The Procedure section of this science project will carefully walk you through connecting potato batteries in series and in parallel. You will use a multimeter to measure their voltage and current, and check to see if your potato batteries can power a small light, called a light-emitting diode (LED), or a buzzer. Be sure to review the terms, questions, and references listed below before moving on to the Procedure tab.

Terms and Concepts

  • Battery
  • Chemical reaction
  • Electrode
  • Electrolyte
  • Electrical current
  • Ampere
  • Amp
  • Voltage
  • Volts
  • Resistance
  • Ohms
  • Circuit
  • Load
  • Closed circuit
  • Open circuit
  • Series circuit
  • Parallel circuit
  • Open-circuit voltage
  • Short-circuit current
  • Multimeter

Questions

  • What are the basic parts of a battery? How do batteries generate electrical current?
  • What is electrical current? What is its unit of measurement?
  • What is electrical voltage? What is its unit of measurement?
  • What is electrical resistance? What is its unit of measurement?
  • What are the differences between open, closed, and short circuits?
  • How is the flow of electricity similar to the flow of water?
  • If one vegetable or fruit battery is not enough to power a buzzer, what could you do to resolve the problem?

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

Materials and Equipment Product Kit Available

These specialty items can be purchased from the Science Buddies Store:

  • Veggie Power kit (1). Includes:
    • Copper electrodes (3)
    • Zinc electrodes (3)
    • Alligator clip leads (6); each lead has alligator clips on both ends. Color does not affect function and may vary.
    • Digital multimeter with test leads
    • Piezoelectric buzzer
    • Red light-emitting diode (LED); a super bright, high-efficiency red LED is needed. Avoid using "diffuse" LEDs for this science project, as they will be too dim.

You will also need to gather these items:

  • Potatoes (3), any large type like a russet. Make sure your potatoes are fresh. Old, dried out potatoes will not provide enough electricity.
  • Paper towels for cleanup as you prepare the potatoes
  • Lab notebook

Order Product Supplies

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Project Kit: $59.95

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Insert the electrodes into the potatoes.
    1. Note that some juice may leak out of the potatoes during this process, so work on a surface that is easy to clean, or use paper towels.
    2. Press one copper and one zinc electrode into the middle of a potato, spaced roughly 1 inch apart, as shown in Figure 4. Press the electrodes in until they almost poke out of the other side of the potato. Note: If they do accidentally go through, that's ok. Just pull them back up a little bit.
    3. Repeat this for the other two potatoes.
copper and zinc electrodes in a potato battery

Figure 4. Copper and zinc electrodes inserted into a potato.

  1. Prepare a data table like Table 1 in your lab notebook. You will use this table to record the open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current of your potato batteries, and note whether they can power the light-emitting diode (LED) and the buzzer.
Number of Potatoes Series or Parallel Open-circuit Voltage (V) Short-circuit Current (mA) Lights the LED
(yes/no)
Powers the Buzzer
(yes/no)
1 n/a*        
2 Series        
3 Series        
1 n/a*        
2 Parallel        
3 Parallel        

Table 1. Data table for recording open-circuit voltages, short-circuit currents, and whether the LED and buzzer can be powered by a certain battery configuration. *Note: A single potato cannot be connected in series or in parallel ("n/a" stands for "not applicable"). When you make measurements for one potato, you can enter that data in the table twice (in each row with an "n/a"). This will just make it easier to visualize and graph your data later.

  1. Measure the open-circuit voltage and short-circuit current of a single potato battery.
    1. Use alligator clips to connect the multimeter leads to the copper and zinc electrodes of a single potato, as shown in Figure 5.
      1. First, plug the red multimeter lead into the multimeter port labeled VΩMA, and the black multimeter lead into the multimeter port labeled COM.
      2. Now clip one end of the red alligator clip onto the metal part of the red multimeter probe, and the other end onto the copper electrode.
      3. Finally, clip one end of the black alligator clip onto the metal part of the black multimeter probe, and the other end onto the zinc electrode.
      4. If you need help using a multimeter, consult the Science Buddies Multimeter Tutorial.
    2. Set the multimeter to measure DC voltage (direct current). Record the open-circuit voltage in your data table. You might need to adjust the scale of your measurement to get a good reading; refer to the Multimeter Tutorial link above for help doing this.
    3. Set the multimeter to measure direct current (again, you might need to adjust the scale to get a good reading). Record the short-circuit current in your data table right away (the current may begin to drop slightly as the battery begins to drain).
    4. Important: Do not use your multimeter to measure current from regular batteries like AA or AAA. They can provide much more current than potatoes and other fruits and vegetables, and may damage your multimeter. It is ok to measure the voltage of regular batteries.
diagram picture of multimeter connected to a potato battery

Figure 5. Use alligator clips to connect the multimeter leads to the electrodes. Connect the red alligator clip to the copper electrode (the positive terminal of your battery) and the black alligator clip to the zinc electrode (the negative terminal of your battery). Nothing will break if these are reversed, but your multimeter will show negative voltage and current readings.

  1. Investigate whether or not a single potato battery can power the LED and the buzzer.
    1. Disconnect the alligator clips from the multimeter leads, but leave them connected to the zinc and copper electrodes.
    2. Connect the red alligator clip (which should be connected to the copper electrode, the positive terminal of your battery) to the longer of the two LED leads. It is important to do this step correctly, because current can only flow through LEDs in one direction.
    3. Connect the black alligator clip (which should be connected to the zinc electrode, the negative terminal of your battery) to the shorter of the two LED leads.
    4. Does the LED light up? Record your answer in your lab notebook. If it does light up, you might want to make an additional note about its brightness.
    5. Repeat steps 4.a.–4.d., this time using the piezoelectric buzzer. It also has two leads, one marked with a "+" and one marked with a "-" on the plastic case. Attach the red alligator clip to the "+" side, and the black alligator clip to the "-" side.
    6. Figure 6 shows diagrams of the LED and the buzzer connected to a single potato battery, with close-up pictures of the connections.
diagram of LED and buzzer connected to potato battery

close-up shot of alligator clips connected to buzzer and LED leads

Figure 6. Diagrams of the LED (top left) and buzzer (top right) connected to a single potato battery. Close-up photos of the alligator clips connected to the LED (bottom left) and to the buzzer (bottom right).

  1. Test two potato batteries in series.
    1. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with two potato batteries connected in series. Remember to test open-circuit voltage, short-circuit current, the LED, and the buzzer. Record your results in your data table.
    2. Figure 7 shows a picture and a diagram of two potatoes connected in series. Refer back to Figure 3 in the Introduction if you need a reminder about the difference between series and parallel connections.
two potato batteries connected in series

Figure 7. Two potato batteries connected in series. Notice how the zinc (negative) electrode of one potato is connected to the copper (positive) electrode of the next potato, with the green alligator clips. The red and black alligator clips are connected to the load (which can be the LED, buzzer, or multimeter).

  1. Test two potato batteries in parallel.
    1. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with two batteries connected in parallel. Record your results in your data table.
    2. Figure 8 shows a picture of two potatoes connected in parallel. Refer back to Figure 3 in the Introduction if you need a reminder about the difference between series and parallel connections.
two potato batteries connected in parallel

Figure 8. Two potato batteries connected in parallel. Notice how the copper electrodes are connected together with green alligator clips and the zinc electrodes are connected together with yellow alligator clips. The red and black alligator clips are still connected to the load (which can be the LED, buzzer, or multimeter).

  1. Test three potato batteries in series.
    1. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with three potatoes in series. Make sure you enter the results in your data table.
    2. Figure 9 shows a picture of three potatoes connected in series.

Figure 9. Three potato batteries connected in series. Notice how the zinc electrode of one potato is connected to the copper electrode of the next (with the green alligator clips), just like in Figure 7; but here, a third potato has been added. The red and black alligator clips are still connected to the load (which can be the LED, buzzer, or multimeter).

  1. Test three potato batteries in parallel.
    1. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with three batteries in parallel. Record your results in your data table.
    2. Figure 10 shows a picture of three potatoes connected in parallel.

Figure 10. Three potato batteries connected in parallel. Notice how all three copper electrodes are connected together using green alligator clips, and all three zinc electrodes are connected together using yellow alligator clips. The red and black alligator clips are still connected to the load (which can be the LED, buzzer, or multimeter).

  1. Analyze your data.
    1. Your data table should now be complete. Making graphs may help you visualize your data. If you need help creating graphs, you can try the Create a Graph website.
    2. Make a bar graph or a line graph of open-circuit voltage vs. number of potatoes. Include one set of bars (or lines) for potatoes connected in series, and one set of bars (or lines) for potatoes connected in parallel (alternatively, you could make two separate graphs, one for series and one for parallel).
    3. Make a bar graph or a line graph of short-circuit current vs. number of potatoes. Include one set of bars (or lines) for series, and one set of bars (or lines) for parallel (alternatively, you could make two separate graphs, one for series and one for parallel).
    4. How do voltage and current change in each case? Are your results consistent with what you expected?
    5. How much voltage and/or current does it take to power the LED? Is there a certain voltage and/or current below which the LED will not light up at all?
    6. How much voltage and/or current does it take to power the buzzer? Is there a certain voltage and/or current below which the buzzer will not make any sound?
  2. Optional: Try repeating the experiment twice more with fresh potatoes each time. Do you get the same measurements each time or do different potatoes produce different amounts of electricity?
    1. If you are interested, there are additional experiments listed under the Make It Your Own tab.

Troubleshooting

For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!.

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Variations

  • Repeat the experiment with different fruits and vegetables, such as apples, onions, oranges, or lemons. How do their open-circuit voltages and short-circuit currents compare to potatoes?
  • Hook the battery up to a load (like a resistor, a buzzer, or an LED) and measure its voltage over a long period of time. How long does it take for the battery to drain? Is this time different for the resistor, the buzzer, or the LED?
  • "Recharge" a dead potato battery by soaking it in water and repeat the experiment. Investigate how this works. Compare your results.
  • Do a new experiment where you change the distance between the copper and zinc electrodes, and measure the effect of this distance on current and voltage.
  • Do a new experiment where you change the amount of surface area of the electrodes that is embedded in the potatoes. How does this change the current and voltage? Hint: You can fit almost the entire electrode into a potato if you push it in lengthwise.
  • Can you find a mathematical formula to predict the voltage and current delivered by combining potatoes in series or in parallel? If so, can you make different combinations, like two batteries in parallel combined with a third battery in series, and test your formulas on these more-complicated scenarios?
  • If you were able to power an LED with your veggie battery, try putting two LEDs connected in series, or two LEDs connected in parallel, or a combination of an LED and a buzzer. Do certain combinations work and others not?
  • What happens if you do the experiment with smaller (or larger) potatoes, or cut a potato in half? Does that change the amounts of current or voltage that are generated? What about the time it takes for the battery to drain?

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.
Q: Why am I getting negative voltage and current readings?
A: This simply means you have the red (positive) and black (negative) probes from your multimeter switched. Follow step 3a of the Procedure and refer to Figure 5 to make sure you have the red and black probes connected correctly.
Q: I cannot get the LED to light up. What should I do?
A: LEDs let electrical current flow through them in one direction only. If your LED does not light up at all, you probably have it connected backward. Refer to steps 4b-4c and Figure 6 in the Procedure to make sure your LED is connected correctly.
Q: I cannot get the buzzer to work. What should I do?
A: Just like the LED, the buzzer lets current flow through it in one direction only. If your buzzer makes no noise, you probably have it connected backward. Refer to step 4e and Figure 6 in the Procedure to make sure your buzzer is connected correctly.
Q: Why are my potatoes not producing any electricity?
A: Make sure you are using firm, fresh potatoes. You can try soaking your potatoes in water to improve their performance, but old, dried-out potatoes will not work.
Q: What settings should I use on my multimeter to measure voltage and current?
A: The general rule of thumb for making measurements with a multimeter is to start with the next highest scale above the value you expect to measure. Then, move to a smaller scale if possible to improve measurement accuracy. For this project:
  1. For voltage, start with the 20 volt (V) scale. If the measured value turns out to be less than 2 V, you can move down to the next lowest scale for improved accuracy. On the DVM810 multimeter that comes with the Science Buddies kit, these scales are labeled "20" and "2000m" respectively. 2000m stands for 2,000 millivolts (mV), which is equal to 2 V.
  2. For current, start with the 20 milliamp (mA) scale. If the measured current is less than 2 mA, you can move down to the next lowest scale for improved accuracy. On the DVM810 multimeter that comes with the Science Buddies kit, these scales are labeled "20m" and "2000μ" respectively. 2000μ stands for 2,000 microamps (μA), which is equal to 2 mA.

If you need help using a multimeter or if this is your first time using one, you should ask an adult for help, or refer to the Science Buddies Multimeter Tutorial.

Q: I cannot get any voltage or current readings. What if my multimeter is broken?
A: If you think your multimeter is broken, you should check several things:
  1. Make sure the probes are plugged into the proper ports on your multimeter. The red probe should be plugged into the port labeled VΩMA, and the black probe should be plugged into the port labeled COM.
  2. Make sure you are using the proper settings on your multimeter when attempting to measure voltage or current. For example, you will not be able to measure voltage properly when the multimeter is set to measure current, or vice versa. You will not be able to measure either voltage or current when the multimeter is set to measure resistance. Refer to the question directly above for details about what multimeter settings for voltage and current you should use.
  3. Check to see if your potato batteries can light up the LED or make the buzzer work. Try this with three potatoes connected in series and then in parallel, as these configurations will produce the most electricity. If the LED and buzzer do not work at all, then the problem might be with your experimental setup and not your multimeter. For example, make sure that you are not using old, dried-out potatoes; and carefully examine Figures 5–10 in the procedure to make sure you have all the alligator clips connected correctly.
  4. Test your multimeter on a normal household battery like a AA, AAA, or 9 V. Set your multimeter to measure 20 V DC. Important: Double-check to make sure your multimeter is set to measure voltage, not current. Measuring current in this configuration can damage the multimeter. Then, press the multimeter's red probe against the positive (+) end of the battery, and the black probe against the negative (-) end of the battery. Fresh AA and AAA batteries should produce about 1.5–1.6 V, and a 9 V battery should produce (not surprisingly) about 9 V. If you can successfully measure the voltage of a regular household battery, this means your multimeter is working properly. Refer to the previous steps to look for other problems with your experimental setup.
Q: How exactly do potatoes produce electricity?
A: Batteries generate electricity because of a chemical reaction between the electrodes and the electrolyte. In your potato battery, the electrodes are zinc and copper rods. The electrolyte is phosphoric acid, which is found naturally in potatoes. You can do a Web search or refer to a chemistry textbook for the details of the chemical reaction between phosphoric acid and the copper/zinc electrodes.
Q: Can I power a larger device like an MP3 player or cell phone with a potato battery?
A: Unfortunately, many misleading videos on YouTube claim that you can charge such devices using just a couple of fruits or vegetables, or even by plugging a USB cable directly into a piece of fruit! These claims have several serious problems.

First, as you probably discovered during your science project, a couple of potatoes can at best produce only a few milliamps of current. Consumer electronic devices like cell phones and MP3 players typically require hundreds and hundreds of milliamps to charge. So, it would take dozens, if not hundreds, of potatoes to produce enough current to charge something like an iPod.

Second, you just learned that in order for a chemical reaction to occur and produce electricity, the electrodes must be two different types of metal. In this experiment, those electrodes are copper and zinc. However, the pins on a USB plug are only one type of metal. So, even if a single potato could somehow produce hundreds of milliamps of current, there is no way for a chemical reaction to occur simply by inserting a USB plug. No chemical reaction means no current.

Finally, electronic devices typically require a current and voltage that are well regulated in order to charge properly. For example, USB-charging devices are designed to require 5 V, and the current may vary depending on the exact device. Cell phone chargers that plug into a wall are specifically designed to provide the right voltage and current. Not only can hooking up a device directly to an unregulated power supply prevent it from charging properly, but it can also damage or even destroy the battery. So, even if you could somehow get around the first two problems above, it would not be a good idea to charge an electronic device directly from a potato, without some external protective circuitry.

For a further debunking and explanation of this myth, see the HowStuffWorks article Can you power an iPod with an onion?

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