News of an invention by Dr. Cedrick Ngalande designed to generate power for people in remote zones of Africa really got me thinking. It’s because his invention uses a cheap, ubiquitous and cooperative energy source–people.
And before your imagination dreams up chemical vats and The Matrix-style technology, Ngalande’s Green Erg generator is a lot simpler. It’s a wheeled device, attached by a simple harness that’s designed to trundle along behind a person who’s walking. As the user walks along, the rubber-coated rollers keep in good contact with the ground–even on rough, bumpy terrain–and spin a dynamo that generates power. According to Dr. Ngalande using it doesn’t place a noticeable burden on the wearer: “We have tested it on moist lawns and it has worked. It is very smooth, so much that you basically don’t feel any disturbance as you move along.” And it’s powerful enough to put out more than 2 watts at normal walking speed–more power would be produced at running pace, but it’s also ideal for tagging onto an ox cart, or even a bicycle due to its simplicity.
Brilliant stuff, and ideal for even the most rural of zones where someone may need power and can’t get it. It’s even simpler and potentially cheaper than traditional solar-powered tech that could do a similar job. It can also be produced much more locally, in a boost to regional economies.
The principle is sound though: Why don’t we all use devices that work in a similar way to power our gadgets? It could require little extra effort, and save us from consuming vital energy resources to do something as mundane as charging an iPod. Of course hand-crank devices already exist, but they’re not very widely adopted. Because, lets face it, in our comfortable modern society we’re lazy, and the idea of cranking a device to get an iPod to run isn’t appealing.
But this probably won’t be the case for long. There are a number of technologies bubbling away that make use of “human power.” We covered a Japanese experiment to use commuter footsteps to drive machines in railway stations, and the “dance-floor power station” that uses similar principles hit the news last year. There’s also considerable research by the space industry and the military into using astronauts and soldier’s motions to generate power for their gizmos. That technology is a little more sophisticated, involving piezoelectric power generators and the like, but the principle is the same. Most interesting of all is some research into nanotech-embedded fabrics that would make your clothes generate power as you move without you even noticing.
These are great solutions for our lazy lifestyles, and they could be brought to consumer level easily. On some levels this tech is simpler and cheaper than “alternative fuel” solutions, particularly with advances in battery science. It’s eco-friendly, and we could all do with some extra exercise.