Energy Harvesting – it sounds as though somewhere there must be farmers with rows of lightbulbs growing in fields. Well scratch that tranquil scene and instead imagine sweat, dancefloors, rubber sheets and heavy breathing: far closer to the truth about energy production methods of the future.
Energy harvesting is set to change the way that we use devices such as mobile phones, laptops, lights and other gadgets. Here’s our top favourite weird and wonderful ways of harvesting energy.
1. Sweat and tears
The Green Microgym in Portland, Oregon, recycles the energy created by its users to generate electricity for the building. Energy harvested on the special exercise machines is pumped straight round to the gym’s electricity supply – helping the gym owner slash energy bills by 60%.
Club Watt in Rotterdam uses a form of kinetic energy called the piezoelectric effect to generate electricity. When people walk, hop, skip or jump, energy is generated – but it usually goes straight back into the ground. Scientists from Studio Roosegaarde discovered a way to power electronic equipment – and so the energy harvesting dancefloor was born. The design has been replicated in several locations across the world including London.
3. Clothing movement
Every time you move, energy is generated by friction produced by your clothes rustling. Scientists have developed a “power shirt” which uses fibres coated in zinc oxide nanowires, which use the piezoelectric effect to convert movement into electricity. It is hoped that the shirt could be worn by soldiers out in the field to power small survival devices which currently require frequent charging.
4. Smartphones Harvest Energy from Any Light Source
Isn’t it annoying when your phone runs out of battery after only a few hours? One day soon, we may never need to carry a charger around or face being cut off by technology – smart phones of the future will be equipped with tiny solar panels. A thin, transparent photovoltaic film can be fitted over the phone’s normal screen to draw energy from both natural and artificial light.
5. Knee Power
An electricity generating knee brace been developed as a way of powering small devices which can help people whose lives depend on portable power. They convert enough energy to power electronic prosthetic limbs, or even a pair of night vision goggles used by soldiers. Just on minute of walking generates enough energy to power a mobile phone for 30 minutes.
6. Speed bumps
If you’re a boy racer with a lowered car – or even if you’re not – you have probably cursed the lowly speed bump at some point or other for getting in the way. However, scientists have devised a way to turn kinetic energy generated by vehicles going over the bumps into energy. One of these ‘MotionPower’ devices was successfully tested at a Burger King drive-thru, helping to power its kitchen equipment.
Scientists have developed a device which converts human breathing into electricity. Vibrations created by breathing power a plastic microbelt, engineered from piezoelectric material called polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). Developers believe that they will soon be able to make the technology tiny enough to fit inside your nose.
8. Solar panels you can wear
Everyone is familiar with solar panels – but a new development could see them being worn as an energy-saving fashion accessory. A company has developed portable solar panels which fit over the top of a backpack, allowing the wearer to generate enough electricity to power an iPad or Kindle whilst on their travels. A university in Australia has also developed flexible, lightweight solar panels suitable for soldiers out in the field, which would reduce the need for them to carry heavy battery packs. Another option currently in development is clothing woven from solar powered fibres – watch this space!
9. Squishy shoes
These babies are pretty low-tech when you compare them to some of the other gadgets we’ve featured – but they’re just as ingenious! When the wearer walks along, water stored inside the sole is pushed through a turbine and into a mini generator attached to each shoe, generating enough energy to continuously power an iPod if the wearer keeps walking.
10. From Heat, to Sound, to Electricity!
Scientists in the US have created a nifty method of generating power by converting heat into sound via a device called a ‘thermoacoustic prime mover’. The sound waves can then be converted into electricity using piezoelectric devices that create pressure and convert the sound into electrical current. The technology is so small it can fit into the palm of your hand.
11. Energy Producing Bacteria
Naturally occurring bacteria live in soil and on certain plant roots. They can be used to convert nitrogen from the air into a chemical that plants can use to grow. Scientists in America have also discovered a way to make these bacteria release hydrogen, which can be converted into water and heat.
12. Tornado Power
Round the twist scientist Louis Michaud has been working on a crazy way to generate power – by creating a controlled tornado that can be placed near existing nuclear energy plants and would convert waste energy into electricity. The tornado uses convection to mix hot and cold air and could generate anywhere between 50 to 500 megawatts of electrical power. If used in conjunction with an energy plant, it has the potential to generate enough electricity to power a whole city. Sound dangerous? In the unlikely event of the tornado escaping, an operator could either switch the waste heat off, cutting off the tornado’s heat source, or – in the worst case – douse the nuclear plant with cold water. Reassuring!
13. Space Power
This one has actually been around since the 1970 – but still sounds just as ingenious today: gathering solar power in space and sending it back to us earthlings to power our technology. Without the ozone layer to filter the sun, energy harvesting via solar panels in space is a lot more efficient than down here – now scientists just have to overcome the small matter of beaming the electricity back to Earth!
14. Wave motion
Hydrokinetic energy uses the natural movement of the sea to generate power. Vortex vibrations caused by the sea are behind Vortex Hydro Energy -billed to be one of the only types of ocean power that works well at low speeds. Engineers are also currently working on a way to replicate the movement of fish to increase the efficiency of Vortex Hydro Electricity – this is definitely one to watch!
15. Power Walking Backpack
Last up – the term ‘power walking’ suddenly takes on a whole new meaning with the development of an energy harvesting backpack. The bag converts kinetic energy generated by the up-and-down movement of the body when walking, and looks similar to a frame-style backpack. The device generates enough power to simultaneously power an MP3 player, a PDA, night vision goggles, a handheld GPS and many more items.