Getting power from human power

Seems most odd:

Turning the human body into a power station sounds like a zany plotline from the Matrix movies, but scientists are starting to take seriously the idea that one way to stem climate change might be to harvest tiny amounts of energy in the form of the body’s heat, movement, metabolism and vibrations.

I can see certain very specialist applications. But as a general rule I\’d have thought this was grossly, grossly, uneconmomic.

For our method of providing the human body itself with power is grossly inefficient. I once did the calculation of how much solar energy (ignoring oil, farming etc, just the evaporation of water into the rain that falls on the crops) we use to provide a calorie of useful fuel to a human. Can\’t recall the answer but it\’s thousands to one.

Would clearly be, except for some very specialist uses, more sensible to just collect the solar power at 10
% efficiency with a PV cell and then use it.

24 thoughts on “Getting power from human power”

  1. There will be niche applications, some military ones (any trickle charging reduces the weight of the batteries and infantry-man has to carry) and ones like the Olympic Park, where it is probably an economically neutral or negative gimmick.

    I can’t see that it is going to do much for reducing carbon emissions (never mind how much reducing carbon emissions is going to ‘stem climate change’) simply because of the low power and potential difference available. I bet the Olympic pathway used LED lighting? I’d also bet (with a little less confidence) that about 95% of the “carbon emissions while running” saving came from using the LEDs rather than from using footstep generator slabs.

  2. We should link up exercise machines at gyms to the TV screens that they all seem to have on all the time. I can easily generate over 100W for periods of 1 hour or so. That way, if you cycle too slow you lose the picture. Imagine all the energy saved.


  3. Well, I think Tim’s being a bit of a wet blanket. After all, perpetual motion machines are bound to have numerous uses. It really is time to repeal the Laws Of Thermodynamics.

  4. So Much For Subtlety

    The human body, especially these days, contains large amounts of fat. They would be better off simply burning the corpses.

  5. Ian B>

    Good point. Come to think of it, who are the physicists to tell me I can’t create or destroy energy if I choose? Damn totalitarians get everywhere these days.

  6. ” I once did the calculation of how much solar energy (ignoring oil, farming etc, just the evaporation of water into the rain that falls on the crops) we use to provide a calorie of useful fuel to a human.”

    This might be a bit off beam. It would be a valid comparison if there was an alternative that involved humans not getting those calories, the sunlight not hitting crops, etc.

  7. Power from the human body? We’ve only been doing this since homo sapiens discovered that animal skins kept them warm. I can save oodles of carbon emissions by putting on a jumper. Now, who wants to pay me?

  8. XX ” I once did the calculation of how much solar energy (ignoring oil, farming etc, just the evaporation of water into the rain that falls on the crops) we use to provide a calorie of useful fuel to a human.”XX

    Fine, if the human was not already there and eating those calories anyway.

  9. All very clever things, but in effect no more so than a self-winding watch, a quite old mechanical device. The pacemaker one is especially interesting, although I would quibble with the author’s claim that the batteries in current ones “run out” after a few years – more likely they chemically deteriorate past their shelf life way before they run out of stored energy. The timing is about right. And of course the piezo energy needs to be stored somewhere, a capacitor maybe.

    But you were going to carry the watch anyway (well *you* were, I haven’t worn one in years) and the parts were going to jiggle anyway, so harnessing a bit of parasitic energy is fine. 2W per leg is a pretty scary number for walking around though… you’re going to feel that. And it still isn’t much.

    And even then we’re several orders of magnitude away from affecting carbon dioxide emissions. Author is definitely a tosser.

  10. a “power shirt” woven from pairs of fibres coated with tiny strips of zinc oxide and gold. As you move, the fibres rub against each other to produce a current.

    Look, I’m all for developing new technology, that’s great. But an article of clothing producing a current while in contact with my chest I could live without.

    And if they start work on an underwear equivalent then I, and my family jewels, will be running the other way…

  11. @ Frederick

    Damn good idea. Gyms must produce an awful lot of energy that could be captured. It has often struck me that they used to have treadmills in prisons as a punishment and they are now viewed as a leisure activity for which people are happy to pay.*

    (including in prison gyms, one assumes – which strikes me as having a certain air of irony)

    *okay, there are other activities once viewed as punishments for which people are happy to pay, but they tend to be a bit more niche…

  12. I seem to remember some American (I think) office building of the type that heaves with middle class progressive airheads installing a gym that did exactly that, and the amount of energy produced was somewhere around the “trivial” mark. Greater than zero, but within the error bars for the building’s overall energy consumption kind of thing.

    The benefit was the same kind of irrational feelgood “doing something that saves the planet” that drives well-meaning dimwits to buy milk in plastic bags instead of rational packaging.

  13. The proposal is not to save the planet or find some new power source as an alternative to windmills or other such lunacies, but to make use of otherwise wasted energy for convenience.

    As i-devices (I was about to write “mobile phones”, showing my age) get ever more miniaturised and their capabilities increase, they’ll get integrated into clothing. Why cart around bunches of i-Pads, Kindles, etc as separate objects when a patch on ones sleeve can do the same work and more?

    Using clothing, everyday bodily motion and so onto generate the power to drive these devices seems an obvious step.

    Same goes for pacemakers and other medical applications.

    The technology for all this is under development and, clunky as it is today, will go from dernier cri through de rigueur to “what, they used to wear clothes that just… dressed them?” in a decade or so.

  14. Gyms must produce an awful lot of energy that could be captured.

    The cycling machines and cross-trainers run the electronics of the control panel, but a running machine needs power otherwise it’s pretty much a normal floor.

    The best way to power anything is using oil, gas, or their derivatives, as everyone knows.

  15. Chert, I’ll try to toss and turn in my sleep so my pacemaker doesn’t run out of juice.

    Apparently the old fashioned pacemakers used to bugger up the crematoriums. So my mother got phoned up one day to go and take one out. They had spiral winding round the live wire to prevent interference from HT cables or something. Anyway, she made an incision, started pulling on the wire… five metres of wire later and still tugging at it, the family walked in to pay their last respects.

  16. Ah, bloke in france, “toss” may be the clue. Sex, solo, in pairs and in groups involves much oscillatory motion. All vaginas and penises should, by law, be fitted with devices for converting penatrative energy into electricity. Not plugging your vagina or penis into the mains when having sex or a wank should be an offence, but the incentive would be the feed in tariff. Prostitutes, swingers and doggers would be seen as green heroes whereas those who suffer from premature ejaculation would be even more frowned upon.

  17. @ Ian B / Tim N,

    fiar ’nuff (energy is not my forte). I assumed that because you can get wind-up radios and torches that you could generate meaningful levels of power. Clearly not.

    The best way to power anything is using oil, gas, or their derivatives, as everyone knows.

    Well, clearly. Although as a windsurfer, I prefer using the wind for motive power when on water. I’m not recommending it for much beyond sailing, mind. But it’s good for that.

  18. Ian B:

    Waste of time. Pricks at the Patent Office won’t
    allow a perpetual motion machine. Paid off by Big Oil is my guess.

  19. Many above:

    You’re ‘way behind the times. MAD Magazine had a gym where all the exercise machines were hooked up to power generation–and that was back in the early ‘5os.

  20. Now, if you want to get really practical, the pissoirs in public venues could be fitted with mini-waterwheels. And, undoubtedly, both inhalation and exhalation are notoriously wasteful of muscular energy waiting to be captured and exploited.

  21. Paid off by Big Oil is my guess.

    I can confirm that. We keep loads of ’em in a warehouse identical to that at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Barely a week goes by without a bulletin coming down from HQ saying somebody has discovered perpetual motion or perfected cold fusion, and one of us is dispatched to buy him out. The only problem is, some of the perpetual motion magic has rubbed off on the forms used within major oil companies, and they just seem to go from desk to desk to desk, I suspect for eternity.

  22. AFAIK, patents can be taken out for perpetual motion machines – but only if you can demonstrate a working prototype.

  23. the Prole:

    Don’t know about UK but patent laws of the U.S. expressly deny consideration to an application which involves perpetual motion.

    Also, a “working model” of anything may be submitted in support of an application but is not required nor is more worthy of consideration than, for instance, drawings.

    The essence of the application is contained in the written “claims” and these must suffice to explain and convince not only as to whether the device (or process) will work but also as to its difference from existing methods (known as “prior art”) for achieving a given result.

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