Getting a move on: the innovators harnessing kinetic energy

By: Ryan Jay

30 Jul 2019

Kinetic energy is produced by anything and everything that moves. From the falling of a wayward crumb to the orbiting of an entire planet, it underpins all moving things. So how can it be converted and used locally as a renewable energy source to power the things we use?

We explore how kinetic energy is being championed as an alternative to more conventional sources of energy.

Generating watts and burning calories 

When we go to the gym, our motivations tend to be focused on ourselves. Get in the zone, push our limits, be our best selves. 

But what if your workouts weren’t just for you, but also for the environment? That’s the thinking behind eco gyms, where gym goers are motivated to put the work in for a more sustainable environment. 

Terra Hale, in Shepherd’s Bush, London, is a recently opened eco gym. Their spin classes measure a participant’s input by the number of watts they produce, instead of calories burned or distance covered. Rather than set the benchmarks for personal gain, it’s all based on contribution. And the energy they generate together helps power the gym itself, making it more self-sustaining and less reliant on the grid. Any personal bests are an added bonus. 

Though it’ll be some time before entire streets are powered by your local bodypump class, the approach is signalling how companies and individuals are taking the harnessing of energy into their own hands.

People power 

We all know what happens when we rub a balloon on our heads. Our hair stands on end and the kids get a good laugh. But it’s this same effect that allows energy production through everyday activities, giving our own bodies the power to act as batteries. And if your body is an on-the-go battery, it can power local devices, such as your phone. 

The innovation is made possible by triboelectric nanogenerators (or TENGs, for short). A TENG is able to capture the movements of the human body and then convert them to a current, which can be used to power the appliances and gadgets that we use day-to-day. The application is a tad more complex, but the end result is simple enough in how nearby electronics can be charged. 

On an individual level, this empowers us to do more. Go for a run and your phone could be charged for the day. Introduce competitiveness to the equation, and you could charge a whole gym for a day. But if you start bringing it to communities, you could even light up an entire football stadium and bring people together.

Stepping into the light 

Taking inspiration from a football-mad community that has struggled to play the game that it loves, Shell and Pavegen worked together to take a rundown football pitch and power it with kinetic energy, making it self-sustaining. 

In the heart of Morro da Mineira, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, 200 kinetic tiles have been placed under the pitch, and are activated when a game is played. Each 5cm-thick tile produces up to 7W of power per footstep, and if they’re not being stepped on, the output is supplemented by solar panels. 

As the players run, the energy they create on the tiles is stored in batteries which are then used to power the lighting well into the evening. The tiles, which activate when people land on a "hot spot" in the centre, also collect footfall data which means their effectiveness can be reviewed, with huge potential for this technology to be utilised for both energy generation and behaviour insights in areas of heavy footfall. The stadium now stands as a beacon to the community, showing the enthusiasm that the project has sparked.

A brighter future 

People have never been more invested in renewable energy than they are now. But nurturing an energy source that has people at the heart of its production can help bring people together and empower them to push themselves even further.

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