The human battery: Inventions for 2013 and beyond

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 1, 2013

From The News Desk

A futurist sees signs everywhere, but anyone can connect the dots and glimpse what may come.

When I signed up for my first cell phone in the late 90s (a Motorola StarTAC), I didn’t need Faith Popcorn, Ray Kurzweil, or Alvin Toffler to tell me the smartphone would become a must-have consumer- and work-device.

I remember traipsing up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue right after buying my StarTAC one day and every block seeing people walking and talking on a mobile phone. That was 1998. Multiply that by millions and you get today’s constant connectivity, and this has led to an important change in consumer behavior. Suddenly joining house keys and wallet in your pocket or purse was a phone, and over the years greater capability was layered into its hardware – phone, email, texting, map/GPS, games, ebooks, photos and video, and, of course, thousands of apps.

As time passes we expect consumer goods, especially electronics, to get smaller, faster, and more powerful. Nowadays, however, much of the emphasis is on making technologies more efficient. It’s using masses of human beings as heat sources for buildings and perhaps one day capturing the kinetic energy created by cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians to power whole sections of cities.

It is, in essence, solving our energy crisis one human at a time. And this economizing approach ­­­­­­­­­­­– to produce more from less – could have a tremendous impact on future products and brands. That’s because anything that achieves motion creates energy. IBM Distinguished Engineer Harry Kolar predicts that in the coming years, “advances in renewable energy technology could make it possible for us to draw on power generated by everything from our running shoes to the ocean’s waves.”

Naturally, enslaving humans to function as energy sources recalls the movie “The Matrix,” where machines converted humans into batteries to fuel their repressive robotic civilization. While Sci-fi fantasy, it is based on scientific principles. The average person tosses off 100 watts of excess heat just by standing around and stores as much energy in fat as a one-ton battery. Architects in Paris have taken this ambient energy, added to it heat produced from the friction of metal wheels on metal tracks generated in Paris’s Rambuteau Metro station and supply heat to 17 apartments in a nearby public housing project. This approach has also been tested in Stockholm, Sweden, in the Central Station, where a quarter-of-a-million travelers pool their ambient warmth to heat a 13-story office building nearby. And in inside the gargantuan Mall of America in Minneapolis, which is heated from human activity, sunlight streaming through windows, and light fixtures, it might be subfreezing outside but a downright balmy 70 inside.

Six billion people on the planet and we’re the ones using all of this energy. The more we skim from our fellow humans, the less we’ll waste producing it, and in recent years there have been several inventions to help usher in this new energy-independence era. Shoes in development can collect energy from a tiny generator inserted into the soles and a wearable vest can power medical sensors to check high blood pressure and other symptoms that could be dispatched wirelessly back to a doctor or hospital.

Human organs could help power devices like a pumping heart driving a pacemaker or knee brackets replacing a soldier’s battery packs by harvesting energy from his movement. One gym in Portland, Oregon, boasts elliptical machines and stationery bikes that convert leg churning into electricity to help power the building. Dance clubs are powering LED-light shows by harvesting power generated by hundreds of dancers. Princeton University engineers developed a small wearable chip that can capture the energy created by our natural movements to juice small gadgets like a smartphone and other device. (Bonus: each person turns into a giant Mophie!)

Meanwhile, in Durham, England, a crematorium announced it would take the waste heat from the burning of corpses and sell the energy to a local power utility. Each incinerated body creates 150 kilowatt-hours, which is “enough to power 1,500 televisions for an hour.” And on a grander scale, sidewalk panels to stash the kinetic energy of thousands of pedestrians could power streetlights while speed bumps in fast food parking lots could “capture kinetic energy from vehicles that would otherwise be lost when drivers hit the brakes to pick up their Whoppers.”

Imagine if you could secrete panels like these under roads and sidewalks in places like New York City. You might not be able to power Times Square, but you could generate electricity from activities that once wasted it – and go a long way to help forge a more energy-efficient society.