The potential to generate energy is hidden in many places, from skyscrapers to ski-slopes. But new research is showing that a potent source of energy is hiding right beneath our noses, or feet to be more specific.
Some of the first thinking on the subject came from London-based, architecture consultancy, The Facility. The idea began over a decade ago when the group came up with a method of dampening the noisy rattle of parts of London's aging railways, while harnessing the energy that created the noise to generate electricity. The initial idea eventually spawned a floor which can produce energy from the daily stamping of pedestrians. They explored a few different paths, including embedding a series of tiny tubes beneath a rubbery floor, similar to that in a children's playground. When walked over, liquid in the tubes would shift and be forced through turbines, which would generate the power. Although the juice harvested from this system would be relatively small, in areas of high foot-traffic like subway stations it could be used to power low-energy devices like displays, ticket machines and turnstiles.
The Facility aren't alone following this train of thought. PaveGen is another London outfit has been producing individual power-generating slabs, which can be individually retrofitted in place of existing concrete sections. Although they have kept the exact workings of the tiles a secret, once stepped upon a short burst of energy - about 2.1 watt-hours - is produced. Five percent of this goes into powering a light embedded in the surface, while the rest can stored in an onboard battery, or sent to where it's needed. PaveGen claim that just five of these tiles, if placed on a well-trodden path, can produce enough power to illuminate a bus-stop at night. The system got its first major public outing during the London Olympics. An array of the tiles were installed in a shopping centre near the main stadium, with the intention of using the footfall to power half of the mall's out-door lighting.
Due to the negligible amount of electricity produced, these systems are not without their critics. During a recent two-week experiment in Toulouse city centre, it was estimated that if every single resident took an hour out of their day to stomp around on the power-tiles, only enough energy to power 435 streetlights would be generated by them.
That's where Scott and Julie Brusaw come into play - what they have in mind is slightly....bigger. Solar Roadways is a innovative proposal to replace roads across the U.S. with specially developed arrays of solar panels. The proposed panel is atechnological sandwich: the top layer is translucent textured glass, providing the driving surface, beneath this is an array of gadgets, including photovoltaic panels, LEDs, and a heating element, to keep the panel clear of snow and ice. Built into the base of each panel is the distribution infrastructure.
The Brusaws predict that if the U.S implemented Solar Roadways on a nationwide scale, ditching most of its asphalt nationwide in favour of their system, alone it could produce three times more power than the country currently requires, even if they only ran at 15% efficiency. On top of it, the road network would not only be the source of power, but also the distribution system; homes and businesses could plug straight into the road outside their front door.
A vital part of the system is the embedded LEDs, which are necessary to mark the road without painting on it. These alone offer very interesting (and Tron-esque) possibilities. On these roads, the markings could be instantly altered as needed for special events, or could even warn drivers in real-time of diversions or accidents ahead. In remote areas the roads could light up on the stretch surrounding a car, turning off when none are present and warning drivers of cars approaching in the distance. The inclusion of the heating element means that, roads would be kept permanently ice-free nationwide, no matter how hard to reach the location is. Should a panel get damaged, the offending section could be whipped and replaced immediately, while the surrounding road helpfully warns drivers of the works ahead.
It seems like the stuff of science fiction, too good to be true, and at the moment it is. The exact glass needed hasn't been developed yet. It would need to be tough, self-cleaning, anti-glare and all while cruically providing enough grip. However the technology isn't light-years away, not according to Carlo Pantano, Prof Materials Science at Penn State University "We know how to manufature glass, we know what PV are, we know what we have to do to protect glass from damage, we know what it takes to lower manufacturing costs. the research that's really needed has more to do with adapting glass for this particular application"
Currently a prototype panel exists, and a trial run is also being conducted in a parking lot in Idaho. The project is being funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, who are understandably eager to see if the eccentric concept can work in real life.