Durham University student wins global prize for energy poverty project

A Durham University student has won a global award for his efforts in trying to combat energy poverty.

Jeremiah Thoronka, who is from Sierra Leone, has received a one-off prize of $100,000 for his invention which uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.

The 21-year-old, who is currently studying a Master's degree in sustainability at Durham University, was one of 10 finalists shortlisted for the inaugural Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2021.

Jeremiah is the first winner of the prize which is given to a student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.

During the virtual ceremony broadcast from UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, actor Hugh Jackman awarded him the prize and offered his congratulations!

The Greatest Showman Star said, "You've made an enormous difference to your community and far beyond. I'm sure that you will now use this incredible platform to make an even bigger impact."

Jeremiah says he is planning to use the prize money to expand Optim Energy to reach 100,000 people by 2030.Dan Rosensweig, CEO & President of Chegg, said, “My warmest congratulations to Jeremiah. His inspirational work in pioneering clean, affordable energy makes him a thoroughly deserving winner of the inaugural Global Student Prize. This prize honors students everywhere. While many stakeholders are busy debating, students like Jeremiah are busy doing. They truly are the changemakers our world needs."

The InventionEnergy poverty is a major issue in Jeremiah's home country of Sierra Leonne, with just 26% of the population having access to electricity. He grew up in a slum camp amid the fighting of the civil war, having to burn charcoal and wood for lighting and heating. He saw how children fell behind on their schoolwork because of a lack of decent lighting. The demand on firewood leaves the country vulnerable to extreme events like flooding and landslide, and house fires.

Jeremiah says these disadvantages fuelled his passion for renewable energy and climate change advocacy. At 17, he launched a start-up called Optim Energy that transforms vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roads into an electric current. It is different from established renewable energy sources including wind or solar because it generates power without relying on changeable weather. At the same time, no battery and no electricity connection to an external power source is needed.

It ran a successful pilot program in Jeremiah’s neighbourhoods, Makawo in the northern part of Sierra Leone and Kuntoluh east of Freetown. With just two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 citizens, as well as 15 schools where more than 9,000 students attend.

Jeremiah is currently developing plans to expand into the healthcare sector, which needs power to chill medicines and vaccines and create sufficient light for treating patients after dark.