New energy source at our feet

 By Benjamin Plackett

Every day, with every foot we tread on a floor board, we’re wasting and neglecting a potential source of energy…

While there are existing mechanisms to harness footstep energy, they’re costly, non-recyclable, and difficult to produce on a large scale. This means it’s very rare to find a building with the technology. And when you do, it’s usually more of a gimmick than a genuine and viable source of alternative energy.

That’s an opportunity that engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison couldn’t waste.

They have designed and created an inexpensive and straightforward way to make flooring produce electricity from the people walking on it. They implanted nanofibers in wooden floor boards, which then power the building’s lights and other devices. “One of the key merits of this technology is the scalable manufacturability, because our technology is based on the same wood fibers that are used for making the floor panels,” explains Xudong Wang, a materials science engineer at the university who developed the system.

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Wang’s research uses vibrations to generate electricity in much in the same way that clothing can produce static electricity. When a person walks across a floor, vibrations reverberate through the floor creating friction between the floor board’s fibers.

For years, Wang has been on the hunt for the right materials to harvest and maximize this energy. He finally settled on chemically treated cellulose nanofibers. Like Wang says, these are a variant of the same materials used to manufacture the floor boards themselves, which he hopes means they can be easily incorporated into the existing floor board production line. “We basically go through the same floor manufacturing process to make the energy generating floors,” says Wang.

This electricity must then be extracted from the floor boards and stored. “Each piece of floor board has an electrode for charge collection,” explains Wang. Wires connect the electrodes to a central system, which stores the energy in batteries. “It is similar to integrated solar cell panels,” he adds.

The next stage of his work is to prove that the technology can be deployed at a large scale. “For example, we will make 100 square feet floor samples on campus and demonstrate the energy harvesting capability,” he says. But Wang feels confident that it won’t be long before your footsteps start powering the lights. “I would say this technology is ready to be implemented on a large scale.”

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about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.