IG: How did the project start?
ER: POWERleap started during my 4th year of design school at the University of Michigan. We had our entire year to do a body of work worth 12 credits. I set out to design systems that generated electricity from the human body. I started designing wearables like solar necklaces, turbine belts, etc. Then I came up with the idea for POWERleap and never stopped.
IG: How does it work?
ER: POWERleap utilizes the phenomena of piezoelectricity where electricity is generated from an applied stress. Instead of utilizing mechanical displacement like what is necessary with magnetic motors and micro-turbines, piezoelectric materials allow us to harvest vibrations thereby creating a product with no moving parts.
IG: How do you store the energy generated?
ER: The energy generated is aggregated over a number of tiles and then goes through a harvesting circuit, which conditions the power and stores it in a battery as DC power.
IG: What is the current situation of the prototype? Have you already installed prototypes in the public or private sector? And when do you expect having the first commercial application?
ER: We have done temporary installations of prototypes but no permanent installations to date. We are now transitioning into our final commercial development phase taking various prototypes into a commercially viable solution. We plan to have our first installations in early 2011.
IG: So far, have you received more interest from the public sector such as city halls for applications in roads and sidewalks, or from the private sector (nightclubs, gyms…)?
ER: Most interest has come from the commercial sector I’d say with flooring manufacturers, architecture firms, etc. We have a number of interested private customers as well as large municipalities fairly evenly across the globe. Many of the initial inquiries from the public sector have come from tourism and travel departments.
IG: How much energy can a person walking generate per hour and what would that power?
ER: Currently we can generate10 Watts per square meter per hour. This equals about 1kWh per hour from 100 square meters with about 3,000-5,000 people each hour. In locations like busy airport terminals, we can generate 10-20kWh per day. This is enough to power lighting, electronic displays, or an average American home for one day.
IG: Unlike solar and wind power, for example, that requires the addition of new elements to the buildings, POWERleap is integrated and thus not “intrusive”. Do you think this aspect will help cities and buildings incorporate it faster and get a positive reaction from the public?
ER: Absolutely. There is little to no infrastructure cost for POWERleap. Also, we abide with standard building codes and also help clients achieve LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] points through energy efficiency, alternative energy, and green materials. Unlike any other alternative energy product, POWERleap is intended for dense urban and interior environments. This fact alone I think will lead to a significant uptake in our product.
IG: There are two aspects that I find really interesting of POWERleap. One is the idea of generating energy from natural human activities like walking and not from new layers of infrastructure. The second one is that once the energy is generated, the response is almost immediate. Can you talk a little bit about this?
ER: When I was originally working on POWERleap in school, I put a lot of thought into the conceptual aspects of the product. I called the movement ‘social responsibility’, where people had to take responsibility for their actions that affect the planet. POWERleap helps people do that. As long as city dwellers participate in public spaces by walking to work, taking the train (or being active where POWERleap is in place) they have done their part in producing some of the electricity they consume each day. This to me is very important about the product and will remain a part of our marketing pitch and company image throughout our life. People seem to find it really exciting that they can directly take part in this alternative power generation. The amount generated might not have a huge impact on the grid load at the onset, but it will change the way people think about electricity and that is a very important step!
IG: It seems that POWERleap could easily be incorporated to new construction areas. How easy would it be to retrofit existing sidewalks or buildings?
ER: We have explored a lot of ideas. Today, due to the limitations of the technology, it has to take shape of a rigid tile, but eventually I would like POWERleap to be a mat that you could just roll out onto sidewalks as a retrofit. As for retrofitting buildings, POWERleap is something that could go under any existing flooring. If carpet tiles are already in place and not permanently tacked down, POWERleap could be placed underneath them. This goes for any non-permanent flooring. It would be a shame to put POWERleap generators on top of beautiful existing flooring and require a new surface to go on top, so our goal is to be able to replace flooring that can be pulled up and put on top of the generators.We are currently designing generators that can be add-ons to existing access floor products as well.
IG: What are the first price estimates that you are working with per square foot?
ER: Our target price range is $50-100 per square foot. However, we hope to be able to create a product that is cheaper than that in 2011 and beyond.
IG: What are the challenges and opportunities that you see ahead?
ER: As you can imagine, when I start thinking about the opportunities ahead, I can hardly sit still. There are so many features that we look forward to introducing and are already developing, such as occupancy detection for security and green building automation, data tracking for retail sites, and sensing for intelligent traffic flow in vehicular applications. Truly, the opportunities are limitless.