Peddle Power: MIT Cyclocross Team Promotes Alternative Energy, Low-Power Computing

12/11/07Follow @bbuderi

As the red, white, and black uniforms of the MIT Cycling Team bobbed up and down before me early this afternoon, I couldn’t help thinking: human abacus. Okay, the logic might be twisted (most folks here at Xconomy figure that’s a given when I start writing), but there is method to my madness. The cyclists, 10 of them, had gathered in the lobby of MIT’s Stata Center specifically to do some human-powered computing. Their bikes were hooked up to generators, and as the team members pedaled, they produced direct current energy. The generators, in turn, were connected to a converter that transformed that energy to alternating current, which was used to power a couple of small SiCortex supercomputers, which were running an application that simulated a fusion reaction.

It was all about human power, cheap and clean energy, a Google prize, a Guinness Book of Records record, and low-powered computers—a kind of combination energy awareness statement and publicity stunt rolled up into one. Or, rather, two—because although the basic setup described above remained the same, there were actually two parts to what went on today.

Let’s start with Google. At stake here was the Innovate or Die contest sponsored by the search giant and Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, CA. The basic idea is to use pedal power to invent something cool—”zero-emission inventions,” as the website says. Entrants have to film their submission and post it on YouTube. The deadline is Friday, so five members of the MIT team (the most the contest allows) used their pedal power to run a software simulation of a fusion-type reaction inside a Tokamak reactor.

A human-powered computing event at MITThe cycling team, by the way, won last year’s National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 2 cyclocross championship. Cyclocross is a combination of dirt biking and traditional road racing, across lots of different types of terrain—”like a steeplechase on bikes,” says team member Ilana Brito, a graduate student in biology. The team will be defending its title this Sunday in Kansas City. Brito thinks it has a chance both to repeat as national champs and to win the Google contest, which includes a Specialized bike for each team member and a single check for $5,000. But she also seemed to think the whole idea was cool. “Using bicycle power to do something novel and something that will hopefully lead to maybe solutions for alternative energy, something like that.”

The afternoon was about setting a Guinness record for human-powered computing. This time the team used 10 riders. As in the morning run, the bikes were used to power machines made by SiCortex, of Maynard, MA, a venture-funded startup (investors include Flagship Ventures, Polaris Venture Partners, and Prism VentureWorks, along with Chevron and JK&B Capital) that specializes in low-powered supercomputers. To give you an idea of how low-powered, CEO John Mucci says the chip in his supercomputer, with six processors, uses about eight watts of power. The single-processor chip in my laptop, he told me, takes almost 100 watts. Ouch.

It turns out Guinness doesn’t actually have a category for human-powered computing (which will probably be measured by how many floating point operations are performed as a result of all that pedal power). No worries. “We will be submitting a new category,” Mucci says. His marketing manager, James Bailey, also says the team, which pedaled for about 15 minutes, is a slam-dunk to set the standard. In that time, he says, the computer will perform “more arithmetic computations than were done on the whole planet up until about 1960.” All I can say is that’s a lot of abacuses.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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