The Future is Here: Power Shorts!

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorBig public events are often used to showcase new technology: the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Bett Show in London, and now the Glastonbury outdoor festival in England, where early last the mobile phone company Vodafone chose to showcase a new line: the Power Shorts, an item of clothing that turns motion and even body heat into electricity.

The shorts were naturally a big hit, and quite appropriate for the venue since they use motion (like dancing), to boost the battery life of your mobile devices. Created with help from scientists at the University of Southampton, the shorts incorporate a Power Pocket that contains foam-like ferroelectret materials with pockets of permanently charged surfaces. When the material gets squashed or deformed through movement, kinetic energy gets produced.

power-pocket_610x328But for those who are looking for a way to charge their gear without exertion, Vodafone is also working on a Recharge Sleeping Bag. This bag apparently harvests body heat via the “Seebeck effect,” a process that produces a voltage from the temperature differences across a thermoelectric module.

These modules are printed on the fabric of the sleeping bag, which supposedly can transform an 8-hour snooze into 11 hours of smartphone battery life. As Stephen Beeby, a professor of electronic systems at the University of Southampton who worked on the innovations explained:

One side of that is cold and the other is hot, and when you get a flow of heat through it you can create a voltage and a current. Voltage and current together equals electrical power.

recharge-bag_610x328And this is not the first time that Vodafone chose to unveil something new and innovative that just happens to take advantage of the principles of piezoelectricity during a musical event. For those who attended the Isle of Wight Festival last year, the Vodafone Booster Brolley, a prototype parasol that keeps your phone charged while it keeps you dry might ring a bell.

These are by no means the only examples of kinetic energy devices these days. For example, a piezoelectric rubber material produced by Princeton and Caltech a few years back, is already being considered for shoes and other mobile devices as a means of recharging personal electronics.

pavegen2And remember Pavegen, the rubber panels that turned runners steps at the finishing line of the Paris Marathon into actual electricity? This technology is already being adapted to provide electricity for a Grammar School in Kent, England, utilizing the thousands of steps students take everyday to keep the lights on.

Such concepts are likely to be powering just about all our devices in the not-too-distant future, at least in part. And beyond personal electronics, piezoelectric motors are also sure to be turning up in buildings and public spaces in the near future. In addition to stairways, hallways, and sidewalks, any surface in the city that moves or is touched on a regular basis could be converted to providing power.

Very clean, and very renewable. People still do a great deal of getting around by foot these days, and if we can convert that motion into energy, so much the better!


Towards a Cleaner Future: Generating Electricity with Steps


This years Boston Marathon was the site of a terrible tragedy, as runners reaching the finish line were met with the worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11th took place. Not only was this gruesome attack an injustice of immense proportions, it also overshadowed an important story that took place overseas, one which also involved a marathon and a potential breakthrough for renewable energy.

Here, the runners and spectators who waited at the finish line were also privy to something unexpected. But in this case, it involved a series of rubber panels which turned the runners steps into actual electricity. Known as Pavegen, a material invented by 27 year-old Laurence Kemball Cook and composed of recycled tires, this demonstration was the largest test to date of the experimental technology. And though the results were modest, they do present a frightening amount of potential for clean, renewable energy.


Essentially, a single step on a Pavegen pad is said to generate up to 8 watts of electricity per second. Based on that, and at a speed of one step a second, it would take a single pedestrian 40 minutes to charge a smartphone. However, a small army of pedestrians could generate considerably more – say for example, 50,000+ people taking part in a marathon.

Here too, the results fell short of their intended goal. Schneider Electric – who commissioned the project – held a contest on Facebook and said if they generated over 7 kilowatt-hours of energy, they would make a donation to Habitat for Humanity. As it turned out, all those runners generated more like two-thirds of that: 4.7 kilowatt-hours. Still, the potential is there.


Already the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Kent, England, has contracted with Pavegen to become the site of the first permanent installation of the material. And as the video below demonstrates, it has the ability to at least generate enough power to keep the lights on in a building where hundreds of people take thousands of steps daily.

Given time and some improvement in the yield of the pads, this technology could very well take its place alongside solar, wind, and other renewable sources of power that will bring electricity to the cities of the future. Imagine it if you will, entire sidewalks composed of electricity-generating material, turning every step its pedestrians take into clean energy. I for one think that’s the stuff of bona fide science fiction story (it’s mine, you can’t have it!).

And be sure to check out this promotional video from Pavegen who filmed their floor at work in Simon Langton: