The power of human and recovered energies

While we are exploring new possibilities of powering the planet and slowly shifting away from fossil fuels, two particular concepts have passed un-noticed.  In fact, they should be an integral part of the solution: human and recovered energies.

The concept of human energy

Human energy relates to the energy from human-related mass movements that can be captured and stored.

The idea is simple: to make use of human energy to inject into the electrical grid. The movements of individuals during routine daily activities (e.g. walking to work) could be harvested for energy generation purposes.

The idea relies on the power of large numbers. Although only small amounts of energy can be produced by a single individual through such means, when multiplied by many millions of individuals the amount becomes significant.

The feasibility of the concept relies on simple facts:

  • World population is rapidly increasing. While overpopulation has mostly negative implications, a notable advantage would be the opportunity to make use of large numbers of people to produce energy;
  • The world is becoming increasingly urbanised and the vast majority of the population will be living in cities in decades to come;
  • Mega-cities in the making will become increasingly highly densely populated environments (e.g. Tokyo type of megalopolis);
  • Human energy of the masses is simply wasted when it could in fact be used for energy generation purposes.

The technologies

To date, very few concepts to passively exploit human energy have been articulated and they have only been tested on a small-scale.  There are currently two main ways to go about it:

a) Pressure captors: The mechanism is simple: human passage generates pressure, which is translated into small amounts of energy by numerous sensors spread throughout specific surfaces of regular high human traffic (e.g. subway stations, major urban cross roads…). The small electrical currents produced by all the sensors are then combined and relayed to an energy storage facility or directly injected into the electrical grid.

b) Nanotechnology: New developments in nanotechnologies allow the capture of small amounts of energy from nano-captors. The principle is the same as the dynamo in any electric power plant (conversion of kinetic energy into electricity) but on an extremely small scale.

The business case

There is an enormous potential to take this concept to market. Numerous ideas can be derived from making use of human energy:

As a simple example, millions of gyms operate in cities across countries where people exercise for the sole purpose of having a healthier lifestyle; it is a significant amount of wasted energy! It is totally feasible to connect exercise machines in a way that will harvest the energy produced (e.g. from running treadmills) and inject this energy back into the electrical grid. In fact, it is already being done (see below).

The idea is not to force people to exercise in order to produce energy, but simply to make use of a voluntary practice which is already well spread. People could then exercise not only for health but perhaps also for a healthy planet at the same time. Such a principle would work if a network of exercising centres were to adopt such principles.

Other research involves deriving energy from our body movements through engineered clothing that we may be wearing in the near future. Such energy is harvested through nanotechnology. While this futuristic clothing would only produce small amounts of electricity, it could be enough to power our increasingly popular electrical gadgets (mobile phones, tablets, etc.). Again, when multiplied by millions of users this could make a noticeable change in nationwide energy consumption.

However, much more research and development (R&D) is required to come up with functional human energy harvesting devices. Governments and the private sector should become more active in looking into human energy as a serious alternative and a complementary source of energy.

The use of recovered energies

Going beyond the concept of just harvesting energy from humans, we should begin recovering all other wasted energies from human related activities. The multitude of areas where “secondary” energies could be collected includes:

  • The passage of cars on busy roads/highways as well as trains (translate kinetic energy to electricity);
  • Better capturing energy from industrial exhaust (the heat generated can be used to spin turbines);
  • Air excess pressure vents in subway networks…

There is to date great inefficiency in the way we utilise energy. We need to take advantage of the secondary energies that are going to waste.  By doing so, nations would be able to significantly reduce their energy consumption.

While we may not be able to fully recover wasted energy to achieve idealistic “infinite” energy loops – meaning no new energy inputs would be needed – we can still recover a significant amount of energy for reuse or storage by making our current energy processes more efficient.

Recovering energies could play a key role in the transition phase before renewables take a bigger role in global energy production. By transforming wasted energy for a new use – just as we should transform other forms of waste into useful resources – we can make significant progress towards sustainability.

Sylvain Richer de Forges is head of sustainability at Siloso Beach Resort.

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