Take a step, and you generate 6 to 8 watts of energy—which then dissipates into thin air. But now an architectural firm in London is looking at ways to capture that energy on a mass scale and turn it into electricity.
"At Victoria Station, you have 34,000 people traveling through in one hour," says Facility Architects' director Claire Price. "If you harness that energy...you can actually generate a very useful power source."
Price and her firm are working with local businesses and universities to develop vibration-harvesting sensors that would be embedded into the structure of train stations, bridges, factories, or any other building frequently rattled by commuters, vehicles, or machinery. The devices would capture the rumblings, convert them into usable electricity, and then store it on a battery.
By January 2007, Price plans to have two prototypes ready for testing. One features a staircase with treads designed to flex up to 1 centimeter under the weight of a commuter's footfall. Each step will squash a fluid-filled balloon underneath the tread, forcing the fluid through a tiny turbine that drives a generator and produces a current.
The second is a wireless system of light-emitting diodes, each connected to a tiny device that senses vibrations from people walking or from passing traffic. The resonance will either jiggle a magnet wrapped in a coil of wires or put stress on a crystalline structure to produce a current. So weary commuters could light their own way home.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.