Energy from Crowds

Stephen DeAngelis

November 12, 2007

Crowds seem to be one of life’s unavoidable challenges. Of course, where one person sees a challenge others see opportunities. A couple of MIT graduate students looked at crowds and instead of seeing bedlam saw energy [“‘Crowd Farm’ looks underfoot for renewable energy source,” by Angela Haupt, USA Today, 1 November 2007].

“Crowds of people — the next renewable source of energy? OK, it’s not likely to happen in the immediate future, but it’s a feasible prospect, say two architecture students who have a prize-winning plan to turn human power into electricity. ‘Almost everyone has felt a concrete floor quiver or walked down a staircase that vibrates each time their foot falls,’ says James Graham, 27, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. ‘What they’re feeling is the energy they’re producing being absorbed by the structure. And it made us wonder: Where could we be gathering that energy from?’ In April, Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk, also a graduate student at MIT, took home the top prize at an international sustainable-construction competition in China. There, they presented an idea they call the Crowd Farm. It’s a responsive sub-flooring system of blocks that depress slightly under the force of human steps, Graham says. If such a system were installed beneath a train station’s lobby, for instance, the slippage of blocks against one another as crowds of people walked would generate electricity-producing power.”

Just think of any large venue where thousands of people gather, such as stadiums and arenas. Graham and Jusczyk see them as untapped energy sources. The picture accompanying Haupt’s article shows a “power-generating stool” whose seat moves up and down to generate energy. My friend, Tom Barnett, prides himself on his deep Green Bay Packer roots and celebrates the tickets he has at Lambeau Field. Known to lift a lager or two, he is also pleased that his seats are not too far away from the bathroom. Just imagine the energy that Lambeau Field could generate during a game as all those Wisconsin beer drinkers get up and down to relieve themselves! While in China, Graham and Jusczyk demonstrated their stool.

“The weight of a person sitting on the stool causes a flywheel to spin, powering a dynamo — or electrical generator — and, in turn, four lights. It’s a way to use some of the energy that is usually dissipated into architectural surroundings, Graham says. ‘People sat down and said, “Oh, wow, who actually knew we were producing so much energy?”‘ he says. ‘And we think that’s important. We want whatever energy is produced to be very visible, something you can actually see.’ Right now, producing piezoelectric — or mechanical-to-electrical — surfaces is too expensive to be practical, Graham says. But experimentation could lead to more cost-effective technologies. ‘As designers, our role is to provoke people into discussion about the development of this technology,’ he says. ‘We have demonstrated the architectural concept … and now the actual development has to happen through other channels.’ Graham says he’s optimistic about the potential for human power to be converted into electricity and other forms of energy.”

I have stressed before that when you are talking about energy for development, the most important energy under discussion is electrical power. Since that is what is harvested by “crowd farms” and most underdeveloped nations have an abundance of people, there is real opportunity here if the right technologies can be developed at a reasonable price.

“‘We’re simply taking small vibrations and converting them into energy,’ Graham says. ‘People all over the world are working on actual technologies like this to convert human power into energy.’ Energy harvesting — the process of capturing and storing energy — has grown over the past 10 years, experts say. Today, some bicyclists use headlights that are powered by pedaling. Kids and hikers are using backpacks that charge their cellphones and MP3 players by converting walking-generated energy into electricity. ‘It’s already being implemented in different scales in the world around us,’ says J. Meejin Yoon, an associate professor in MIT’s architecture department. ‘I think there’s a lot of potential in it. And what’s great about the Crowd Farm is that it really tackles the multiple levels of harnessing human energy.'”

Obviously the idea of harvesting human activity to produce electrical power has been around for a while (we have all seen the little generators mentioned in the article that are attached to bicycle wheels to produce enough electricity to power a small headlight). What I like about Graham’s and Jusczyk’s ideas is that they are not only thinking big but are also thinking about context and design (like their sub-flooring idea). I suspect that they look at the world very differently than most of us when they see a big crowd. They not only ask, “What kinds of movements are people making?” but, “What kinds of surfaces are they interacting with?” Great designers and innovative thinkers always look at the world from a unique perspective and never fail to find opportunity.