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Plant Power

  • Navin Suman (left) and Nimisha Varma (right), co-founders and directors of Aloe E-cell, with Erik Azulay, executive director of the Nexus Start-up Hub. Photograph courtesy Aloe E-cell.
  • Navin Suman and Nimisha Varma, co-founders and directors of Aloe E-cell, won $700 at the Regional Global Student Entrepreneur Awards held in Gurugram, Haryana, in January 2020. Photograph courtesy Aloe E-cell.

Nexus-trained start-up Aloe E-cell has developed an aqueous battery made from the aloe vera plant, which can power devices like clocks, flashlights and cameras.


Batteries contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel, which can contaminate the environment when batteries are not disposed properly. When incinerated, certain metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process. But there may be a solution on the way.  

According to Navin Suman and Nimisha Varma, co-founders and directors of Aloe E-cell, the solution may lie in the remarkable innovation of their company—plant-based energy batteries. “Aloe E-cells are 100 percent ecofriendly and non-hazardous 1.5V AA size batteries,” they say. “We have replaced the hazardous chemicals of a battery by a clean and green herbal electrolyte, that is, aloe vera.” Not only are the batteries ecofriendly, they work better than conventional batteries too. “These batteries are 1.5 times more durable and 10 percent economical than the existing zinc carbon batteries,” they add. 

The process of coming up with this innovation was a remarkable one. Suman and Varma explain that it was a matter of combining material, engineering and design evolutions to render this unique product into reality. Aloe E-cells are created using “aloe vera gel processing with natural and high-reactive ingredients, so that the Aloe E-cell battery succeeds to generate stable potential for power-hungry devices,” say the founders.  

Next comes engineering to harness this energy. “With a homogenized filling, the current is allowed to flow with much greater consistency, keeping these batteries working,” say Suman and Varma, adding that “the design would include a separator for better ion transport.” Finally comes the design, which is also a matter of function, as the “structural design provides a lot more space for active ingredients, resulting in longer lasting performance,” say the founders. “A strong internal structure and a tough outer coating ensures far better impact resistance.”  

But why use aloe vera in these batteries? “In our search for ecofriendly potential,” say Suman and Varma, “we experimented on many herbal products, including fruits, vegetables and the roots of plants.” Many may remember the experiment of producing an electric charge from a potato during science class in school. This led to the development of the Aloe E-cells. “It may sound funny, but our research actually began from there,” say the founders. Not all materials generated voltage equally well—“An orange could only generate 0.70V [volt] and was not viscous, while a lemon could generate a potential of 0.80V, but was not viscous and could not provide long-term potential.” So, the experimentation continued.  

This phase of experimentation was followed by further research and study, which revealed that xerophytic plants, which are adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply, can generate electricity. “The first xerophytic plant that comes to our mind is aloe vera,” say Suman and Varma. Initial experiments revealed a power potential somewhere between 0.7-0.9V, but by mixing in other herbal constituents, Suman and Varma note that “it was possible to produce a stable voltage of 1.5V. That was the day when our joy knew no bounds!”  

The process of developing these plant-based batteries was a long one. “The final working Aloe E-cells are the work of several iterations. Construction of the final prototype took us five weeks, and we ran the whole project by our bootstraps,” note Suman and Varma, adding that the training at the Nexus start-up hub at the American Center New Delhi and the grants they have been awarded have proven to be essential in carrying the innovation ahead. “Nexus helped to keep us in the right direction and take the correct approach in the process,” they say. “Nexus has been a turning point in our entrepreneurial journey. Though we had incorporated our organization and created a few working prototypes, we still had no idea of product commercialization, market launch, customer engagement, financial management and so on. This is where Nexus and our mentors played a major role.”  

The best part, according to Suman and Varma, was the process of hearing customer reactions via a program for obtaining their reviews. “It was a little tricky, but was the most exciting part of our journey,” they say. “We met a lot of people. Some of whom were our probable customers, some were excited customers and some were really not our customers at all.”  

Aloe E-cell’s founders say that the Nexus program and mentors played a major role in this process. “Nexus provided excellent, ‘hand-holding support’ that was not restricted to the six-week mentoring,” they add, “but also expanded beyond in terms of long-term mentoring, incubation, cloud credits, networking support and events participation.”  

 

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.