Power from the people

 By Jim McClelland

What is the potential for kinetic generation to scale beyond mere novelty applications? What is the market in connection with the boom in wearables technology? Jim McClelland looks at projects and products designed to harness kinetic energy generated by the human body: these range from footfall systems installed in walkways, soccer pitches and dance floors; via rucksacks and backpacks, as used by soldiers and walkers; to familiar products such as hand-cranked radios and perpetual-motion watches…

Imagine if you were able to generate and harvest energy every day, like a human micro-power station, by doing nothing more than going to work as normal, shopping, playing sport or dancing.

Far from being futuristic, or some fiction from a lost script to The Matrix, this scenario is not only feasible, it is already happening. Whether employed in large-scale public installations, or wearables on your wrist, technologies harvest kinetic energy, generated by the movement and force of the human body. This kinetic energy, from vibrations, shocks and pressure, is then converted into electric energy, typically by way of either what is known as the “Piezoelectric Effect,” or Micro-Electric-Mechanical Systems (MEMS).

When it comes to technology for personal use, we are already familiar with some of the relatively basic product applications for kinetic energy, in the form of wind-up radios and flashlights you twist or shake. These products are ideal for going off grid, maybe outdoors camping and hiking or sailing. More advanced applications in the field might include medical and military uses, plus deployment in disaster and emergency aid-relief work.

In terms of higher-tech apparel and kit, there are footwear technologies such as water-resistant power-generating insoles and smart fabric innovations that employ ambient energy “scavenging,” utilizing body heat and thermal generation from friction. Electricity-generating backpacks are now becoming popular, with the likes of Lightning Packs marketed as suitable for everyone from warfighters to students, whereas the Go Kin biomechanical devices run twin cords from your rucksack to your shoes, powering 45-75 minutes of smartphone talk-time from a five-minute walk.


MUST READ: A solar-powered soccer pitch in Lagos also uses players’ footfall to keep the lights on by Quartz

More than a game...

As we move more into the arena of the Internet of Things and wearable technology – such as smartwatches, fitness trackers and health monitors – small really is beautiful to manufacturers. Here, the ability of energy-harvesting devices to help prolong battery life and downsize storage offers attractive benefits in a global wearables market, which is forecast to reach $70 billion by 2025.

It is at project level, however, that the growth potential in kinetics is perhaps even bigger business. Technology to harness energy from footsteps is being pioneered by innovators like “smart tile” specialists Pavegen. The British company developed out of Loughborough University in 2009 and has gone on to deliver a number of high-profile schemes worldwide, including a public walkway for the London 2012 Olympics; football pitches in Nigeria; airport, office and retail installations, including one for Harrods; plus dancefloors across Estonia. Typically, it only takes a minor 5 mm (2 in) movement underfoot to harvest energy for lighting.

Going forward, the prospect of people power represents a real opportunity in clean energy development, concludes Pavegen CEO and Founder, Laurence Kemball-Cook:

“The energy harvesting market is expected to reach $3.1 billion in 2017. Potential for kinetic systems is huge, with smart cities looking to implement solutions within urban infrastructure.

“Who knows – in the future we could generate energy and real-time data through the simplest movements, like walking, driving, opening and closing doors… even flicking a light switch.”

about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.