Roughly 60 miles west of London, pupils at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys are trampling on a promising new technology for "smart" cities on their way to class. Twenty-four specially designed floor tiles in the school’s hallway harvest and store energy from students’ footsteps, using it to power the lights.
The experiment at Simon Langton, installed this past September, marks the largest demonstration of inventor Laurence Kemball-Cook’s PaveGen tiles to date. After leaving a gig designing street lamps powered by solar and wind at British energy giant E.ON in 2009, Kemball started working on the idea, which he hopes eventually will help power city streets.
Over the past four years, Kemball-Cook’s tiles have been applied everywhere from a London underground station during the 2012 Olympics to a marathon track in Paris. But once Kemball-Cook tried installing PaveGen in a school hallway, he realized that kids actually got a kick out of stomping on the tiles. "We realized that we made energy saving fun, and we never meant to do that," Kemball-Cook told me breathlessly during a recent phone call. "We don’t really focus on schools as a profitable line."
And yet, a dozen schools now have PaveGen tiles, mostly made up of recycled rubber and other materials. Another installation is coming to the Riverdale Country School, a private prep school in New York City, this January.
As Kemball-Cook points out, the appeal of PaveGen in schools has as much to do with educating kids about renewable energy as it does with energy saving for the institution. When kids step on the tiles, their footsteps reflect data back to them in real time by LED screen (also powered by the tiles). Inside classrooms, students can then use the energy to power their own electricity projects and charge devices.
Each footstep can generate between one and seven watts, or about 30 seconds of light for an LED street lamp, though those numbers depend on the force of the step. But in addition to providing power, the tiles can also record different types of data: Take the volume of footsteps, for example, as well as patterns of mass movement.
Such technology has large commercial implications, particularly for retailers looking to analyze the behavior of their shoppers. British Prime Minister David Cameron evidently considered such possibilities when he chose PaveGen to be included in a coalition of representatives from 125 British businesses to speak with him at an energy-harvesting summit in China. When I spoke to Kemball-Cook, he was darting through foot traffic on the official trip to Shanghai.
"Right now, we're at a point where the Internet of Things is really going bring the physical world into the digital one. We’re seeing this mega-trend of big data, and there's a big demand from big companies and building managers to learn about how people move," Kemball-Cook said.
PaveGen-enabled tiles could also feed a wealth of information (and energy saving) to cities. "When people walk, the lights will be brighter, and when there aren't as many people walking, the lights go down," he added.
Having dimmer lights signifying a lone pedestrian actually seems like it could have some unintended safety consequences, but those remain to be seen. It’s also unclear how much the technology costs: Kemball-Cook wouldn’t disclose how much Simon Langton paid for the installation. Still, Kemball-Cook says he’s working to make PaveGen tiles as affordable as typical linoleum.
"If the students spend a year walking over the PaveGen tiles, they'll know about sustainability," he said. "Our aim is to take the same price as normal flooring. And then it can be in every normal floor in the world. It can be seamlessly linked to data, to your home, to your school."