Need More Light? Powerleap Would Like You to Step On this Panel

4/6/11Follow @xconomy

Elizabeth Redmond was a fourth-year design student at the University of Michigan when the idea hit her like…well, like a jolt of electricity.

“I was going to find a way to harvest energy from people,” she says. “I was interested in this idea of social responsibility, how do you teach people to take responsibility for the electricity they use by getting them involved in producing it.”

Ultimately, Redmond’s research concentrated on piezoelectricity, the idea that certain solid materials can generate an electric charge when exposed to kinetic energy. For her thesis, she demonstrated a floor panel that could produce electricity when someone stepped on it.

“I completed my thesis on the sidewalk in Ann Arbor,” Redmond says. “But I realized I wasn’t done with it.”

So she launched POWERleap, based at the Northern Brewery in Ann Arbor, MI. Later in the year, the company will introduce its first commercial product. Dubbed “Smart Floor,” the technology consists of piezoelectric floor panels that can power wireless sensors linked to a building’s management and security systems.

Piezoelectricity is not a new technology. Beginning in the 19th century, scientists discovered mechanical stress, such as pressure from a person’s foot, caused certain crystals and ceramics to generate electricity.

But piezoelectricity has never been fully commercialized. One problem was cost; the other was technological. Researchers could not figure out how to generate, capture, and deliver sufficient amounts of electricity to make it a realistic source of energy.

The concept, however, still captures the imagination of environmentalists. In 2006, the Sustainable Dance Club in the Netherlands debuted lighted floor panels powered by dancing patrons.

Today, there are a number of piezoelectric projects around the world due as governments, companies, and investors seek to develop sustainable clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

For example, Innowattech, based in Ra’anana, Israel, has been working on a system that generates electricity from the weight of moving cars, trains, and pedestrians.

Researchers at Texas A&M are developing a cell phone powered by the sound waves generated by the user. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) is interested in ways for soldiers to use movement to power their own portable equipment.

Piezoelectricity has even attracted the interest of non-energy firms. In February, the journal Human Vaccines published a study by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, based in Blue Bell, PA, that claimed it could use piezoelectricity to deliver DNA vaccines to patients without using needles that puncture the skin. (Wow! Sign me up!)

Redmond is a big believer in piezoelectricity as a future source of reliable power. Her company has appeared on the Sundance Channel’s “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” gadgets episode and Discovery Channel’s “NextWorld” series that examines the future of cities.

At the invitation of the United Arab Emirates, Redmond recently exhibited POWERleap’s technology at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. Redmond said the conference led to discussions with a company in Great Britain that’s developing a piezoelectric road system in which moving vehicles generate and feed power to charging stations for electric cars.

The future may sound great, but POWERleap needs to generate revenue now. That’s why the company is focused on marketing its Smart Floor system.

When people step on the panels, the resulting electric charges power wireless sensors that can turn on lights and air conditioning/heating systems or activate security cameras and alert guards to a possible intruder.

In theory, piezoelectric technology can eliminate the need to constantly swap out batteries. POWERleap’s possible customers include office buildings, parking garages, and retailers, Redmond says. The company hopes to eventually reduce the cost of its systems to $300 per square meter.

In the meantime, POWERleap is raising money from angel investors and hopes to win a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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