With 7 billion or so humans tromping around the planet, it seems like there should be a way to harness some of that people power and turn it into useable energy. Well, two grad students at MIT reckon that there is. They’re working on generating electricity from the energy of pedestrians moving through busy public spaces.

James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk are proposing something they call a “Crowd Farm” (not to be confused with the farm crowd, the folks in the overalls who hang out down by the feed store). A Crowd Farm installation would turn the energy of walking into electricity through the use of a sub-flooring made up of blocks that would depress slightly as people walked over them. The movement of the blocks against each other “would generate power through the principle of the dynamo, a device that converts the energy of motion into that of an electric current.” In theory, the energy created by large crowds could be sufficient to run trains or power homes.

Graham and Jusczyk have already tested a less ambitious version of the Crowd Farm at a train station in Turin, Italy. In their trial model, the action of getting on and off a stool lit up 4 LEDs, apparently delighting users and passersby. (Unfortunately for the electrical bill chez Metzger, power is only generated through movement – just sitting on your butt on the thing apparently won’t do the trick.)

A similar concept is being explored in the UK, where the Pacesetters Project is working on implementing a prototype that would use a specially designed staircase to convert footsteps into electricity. This method would be slightly more efficient than the MIT model, since more kinetic energy is expended in walking up and down stairs than in moving across a flat surface.

Jumping, of course, could potentially produce even more energy. If this idea takes off, maybe we can look forward to a world where nuclear power plants are replaced by football field sized versions of those bouncy castles that kids hop around in at birthday parties. There’s no reason why clean renewable power shouldn’t be fun.

Story by Patrick Metzger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Power from the people
Two MIT grad students propose using crowds of people to harness energy.