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Step on It: Pedestrians to Generate Electricity
April 12, 2010

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Progress happens one step at a time.

That's the view of many people in the energy business these days, especially in the field of alternative energy. One method of generating electricity getting a further test these days involves good old-fashioned footpower.

Engineers in Toulouse, France, have installed a series of specially designed paving slabs containing micro-sensors. When people walk on the slabs, the micro-sensors absorb the energy created and store it in a battery. The energy is then transferred to the main power grid.

The number of slabs in the trial isn't large, but it is enough to produce 30 watts of electricity, which city officials say is sufficient to keep the street lights on for a time. That might sound like a small-scale test, and it is. Scientists, however, are after a much larger application. With so much attention these days focused on renewable energy and shrinking levels of fossil fuels, energy aficionados are more and more looking for newer and better ways to make and store energy. And it's the storage that's the key for many scientists.

Some see large benefits in a solar energy-like approach to the footpower-produced energy. The number of people walking on those sidewalks and over those specially designed paving slabs will be much higher during the day than at night. Rather than just streaming the energy in real time from the micro-sensors to the power plant, scientists are aiming to use the built-in batteries to hold on to the energy until it's needed – at night, when it's dark and the need for energy is a bit higher than in the daytime.

This isn't a new idea. A dance floor of a London nightclub had such under-floor sensors at one time. So did a subway station in Tokyo.

The Shibuya station was particularly noteworthy because it is one of the busiest stations in the world: Every day, more than 900,000 people pass through the station. Special mats were installed at an entrance to the station, and signs and an advertising campaign got the word out that people could vote with their feet for the new method of generating electricity.

French sidewalks aren't the only pavement being used for such testing, either. A similar experiment is going on in Israel, where a half-mile strip of road near Tel Aviv has been outfitted with sensors designed to capture energy created by vehicles overhead. That project is expected to operate on a much larger scale, with anticipated energy enough to power 40 houses on a daily basis, according to Innowattech, the company in charge of the project.



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