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Power harnessed one step at a time

Engineers call it 'crowd farming.' If it works, you could help power city lights just by taking a stroll.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2007

Engineers want to install special flooring in major traffic areas such as this subway station in Queens, N.Y., to harness the power generated by footfalls.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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In the push to harvest alternative energy, scientists have tapped a number of novel sources: the sun, corn, old cooking oil. But how about the simple act of walking?

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For two architecture students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., the sound of footsteps is an echo of energy gone to waste. They figure that the stomp of every footfall gives off enough power to light two 60-watt bulbs for one second.

"Now imagine how many people walk through a train station each morning, or walk down the street in Hong Kong," says James Graham, who, with fellow MIT graduate student Thaddeus Jusczyk, is helping to develop the growing field of "crowd farming."

They devised a special floor of sliding blocks that can turn motion energy (such as from a footstep) into electrical energy. As commuters march across the floor, it would collect tiny flickers of power from each stride and channel that energy.

According to their design – which this summer won a prestigious award from the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction in Zurich, Switzerland – 28,527 footsteps could power a train for one second – 84,162,203 paces could launch a space shuttle.

The problem with their plan: Right now, it only exists on paper. But others have developed real-world examples of plugging into people power. Over the past few years there's been a boom in technology that harnesses piezoelectricity – the science of drawing power from mechanical stress, including motion. While the crowd-farming push has its critics, the discipline is growing, and businesses are signing on. [Editor's note: The original version's definition of piezoelectricity needed clarification.]

"This is a really exciting time because there's been a lot of growth all of a sudden," says Steve Anton, whose review article on recent piezoelectric advances ran in the June issue of the journal Smart Materials and Structures. "For a long time the research was confined to the lab, but a number of real applications have started coming out."

Take POWERLeap. This project, built by sustainable designer Elizabeth Redmond of Chicago, is a scaled-down, but glammed-up, version of Mr. Graham's scheme. When pedestrians trot across one of the flooring system's four decorated glass tiles, LED lights flicker to life underneath their feet.

"I installed it on a sidewalk in Ann Arbor [Mich.] and people were really surprised and excited by the lights glowing from the street," says Ms. Redmond. "When people find out that they were powering the lights, and there were no batteries involved, you get a whole other wave of wows."

Redmond is now crafting a new design for POWERLeap, thanks to a $10,000 grant from flooring giant Mohawk Industries of Calhoun, Ga. Graham says the two of them have been e-mailing about combining their interests.

Power-generating backpack