Earth Battery: A Writing Experiment

I’ve been toying with a book for far too long. For me, these take time. When you step into a project, I try to outline a true North. Asking questions, What should a work represent? Does this collection of words mean anything? Parents often do the same with their children. I want this child of mine to become a major-league pitcher. Or design the next nuclear fusion reactor. But does that happen? Every so often. Not that they can’t reach high marks or build a company to define an age. No, they can. But they become what they want to be through constraints, nature, and a little nurture and guidance.

Like children, books are unpredictable

All authors’ words morph and change. Characters live and breathe. They make choices, good and bad. And where I want the plot to go; well, when I force outcomes, I never reach that desired destination. Worse, when I try to drive change, the book is usually worse off. This happens in writing and government policy. So let true North become Northeast:

“I have been at work in my winter garden. Things are growing… and changing, as does happen with us gardeners. Things twist, things change, new ideas come to me (thank you, muse), old ideas prove unworkable, I write, I rewrite, I restructure, I rip everything apart and rewrite again, I go through doors that lead nowhere, and doors that open on marvels. Sounds mad, I know. But it’s how I write. Always has been. Always will be. For good or ill.”

George Martin


For my latest, which is going more Westward than Northeast, I imagined a scene where electricity traverses the ground. I won’t explain the book or plot at this point; I’m a way from the finish. But I did play around with building an earth battery. I try to run the occasional science experiment at home, and yes, most of these do go astray.

This is nothing new. Many authors experiment with what they write. In the Martian, the author goes to great pains to highlight how a left-behind botanist survives alone for months with little food and water. Yes, potatoes are essential. And Nasa does indeed prepare for contingencies. Most of the book is workable and possible. You believe the lead in the book can survive on Mars. I think that’s why I love writing; one can enjoy looking for the details and playing with the latest experiment even if it doesn’t work.

Presenting the Earth Battery

For this project, I can assure you nothing quite works as they say in the YouTube Videos. Most of these videos must have outstanding editors because my first attempts at the experiment failed. Here is where true North started:

  • Eat ten Icelandic yogurts. Vanilla bean. Strawberry. Blueberry. Rinse the plastic container. And then keep. These were my earth holders.
  • Then, I haphazardly grabbed ten nails from my bin of stray screws and other whatnots. This was a mistake because not all nails are created equal. Some were bent. Ok. Others not made of pure metal. Steel matters to conduct electricity. Trust me; not all heads were created equal. Impurities. Chinese metal. Sigh.
  • Screws too.
  • I found some magic soil leftover for growing plants and filled those Icelandic yogurt cups to just shy of the top, leaving a good half-inch.
  • Then, I placed a nail and screw in each Icelandic container. I used eight to start. Pictures below.
  • Wrapped copper wire around the first nail and then chained the remaining together. Note, I stripped the wire, leaving the connection naked. The voltage is extremely low, so no danger involved. Think of this as connecting different dirt cells, pulling eight batteries together in a sequence.
  • At the end of the chain, I wired a low-watt bulb.

Once I finished the setup, I encountered more than a few problems. As I said, nothing works perfectly. Those YouTube videos are fake, I swear. They probably work, but some experimentation happens. It’s similar to a Rogue State stealing our secrets through a breach and trying to engineer the same product. It might work. But not always. Think Gain of Function research. What can go wrong?

Iteration and do-overs

  • Eat more Icelandic yogurt. My setup didn’t have enough dirt or weight. When a windstorm springs from the ether regions of old man weather, my science experiment made a massive mess on the table. Not great. My wife scolded me. Deserved.
  • When I meant small bulb, think smaller. To channel a charge, we’re talking about a maximum of five watts of electricity; this is a minuscule bulb and took work to find.
  • Orange juice! Yes, the charge will dissipate after a period of time. Here, electricity is created by the combination of iron in the nails and nutrients in the ground. Eventually, that chemical reaction will falter. It’s similar to any natural resource that can be bled dry. To resolve this, I juiced it up (sigh, bad pun) and eked out more light.
  • Not all dirt is created equal. Yes, Miracle Grow is meant to sprout flowers and plants. However, the mix is not necessarily meant to channel an electric charge. So nothing happened after filling out my yogurt, setting up the wiring, and hooking up the bulb. Turns out, real earth needs to be pulled out of the ground. No bags. I was looking for ease but needed more iron in the old dirt slabs.

What did I learn?

Well, I’m glad I tried the experiment because my scene in this upcoming novel would have been unbelievable without said changes. Rewrites will be required on this beast of a book anyway, and I’m not even finished with the first draft. Good fiction is hard. Even bad fiction is difficult. And there are unique and practical use cases for the earth battery. Low-level landscape lights. Battery recharging. With the right equipment and modification, one could possibly charge a cell phone in a pinch. That being said, nobody will replace solar panels or the grid to power your house.

But I like to think we’re all connected. Nature. Humans. A little voltage goes far.


  • The picture was taken in the mid-2000s on the grounds of Monticello. Jefferson was an avid gardener. Many of the trees throughout the property were planted by his own hand.
  • Jefferson Bible.
  • I’ve never read one of Martin’s books. But the quote is on the length of time it takes to get a work out the door. I understand the feeling.
  • These videos on Earth Batteries always amaze. Literally, it took me an immense out of time to get my own humming. These folks make it look easy.
  • Another video.
  • My design was based on this video.