Energy question of the week: Can the human body be used as a power plant?

12. July 2010, 09.53, Jan Oliver Löfken, 4 Comment/s
A human being performing light physical activity needs between 1800 and 3000 calories of energy each day. With hard work and sports, this energy requirement can double. Is it possible to obtain usable electricity or heat from this energy expenditure?

Many suggestions have been made in recent years for producing energy from physical activity. The idea of the human body functioning as a power plant, or even as a battery, has lead to some useful and some very strange concepts. Each person generates about 60 watts of power while walking, and the Swedish company Jernhusen AB uses this to heat the 13-storey ‘Kungsbrohuset’ office building. The neighbouring Stockholm railway station, through which about 250,000 people pass every day, acts as a power plant. Using a special ventilation system, the accumulated body heat passes through a heat exchanger and heats water for central heating. The developers estimate that it reduces the energy demand for office heating by about 15 percent.

Electricity from typing

Computer keyboards that can charge laptop batteries using the energy input from typing are conceivable, although still far from ready for commercial exploitation. The computer manufacturer Compaq has already developed a prototype in which each key has a tiny magnet, weighing a fraction of a gram, attached to it. This is moved through a coil when the key is pressed and creates a small, induced current that is temporarily stored in a capacitor. When this capacitor is charged after repeated keystrokes, it transfers its power to the battery and can extend the battery life by several hours. This patented method (U.S. patent 5 911 529) is, however, certain to be complex and expensive.

Knee dynamo delivers over 50 watts

Knie-Dynamo, Rechte: Science. Bild oben: Wikimedia Commons

Electricity on the move: knee dynamo. Credit: Science.

Not only cyclists, but also runners could soon be generating electricity with a dynamo. Similar to orthopaedic support stockings, the mini power plant – developed at the Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada – fits around the knee. With each step, forces act on a gear mechanism, so each leg movement turns a generator. With the 1.6-kilogram prototype, fast runners generated up to 54 watts of power. Strolling pedestrians were able to generate at least five watts.

In Rotterdam, a sustainable nightclub is already a reality. At Club Watt, each dancer produces about ten watts by moving on the elastic dance floor. The floor moves and this kinetic energy is converted into electric power. Overall, the power conversion efficiency in this eco-disco is so low that it is more likely to be a publicity stunt for the club.

Small powerplants for implants

On the other hand, methods by which sensors or tiny pumps can be operated in the body by self-generated electricity are more meaningful. For example, glucose in the bloodstream can be used for electricity generation. Chemists at the University of Texas at Austin have built a battery from two thin carbon fibres coated with different catalysts. Using the enzyme glucose oxidase, electrons can be extracted from blood sugar at one fibre, while, at the other fibre, they are given up to oxygen dissolved in the blood. A prototype employing this technique is already producing nearly two microwatts. This is similar to a button cell and is sufficient for the operation of implanted sensors, but not yet enough for pacemakers. But scientists in this field regularly report on new approaches that have higher current yields. Because long-term high prices are paid for medical products, it is to be expected that tiny, mass-producible power plants fuelled by the body itself will become available.

The DLR Energy question of the week in 'The future of energy' Year of Science

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has given the Year of Science 2010 the motto 'The future of energy'. For this reason the science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will this year answer a question on the subject of energy in his blog each week. Do you have a question about how our energy supply might look in the future? Or do you want to know, for example, how a wave power plant works and how it can efficiently generate electricity? Then send us your question by email. Science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will investigate the answers and publish them each week in this blog.

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  • By Pierre Paquette on 19.07.2010
    We are still very far from it, but would it be possible to use the whole body as a power plant, a little like the machines do in the movie trilogy "The Matrix" ?
  • By Jan Oliver Löfken on 20.07.2010
    Dear Pierre, principially you could use the whole body as a power source. But so far the efficiency would be far too low to compete with any other power plants. Therefore there is by ethical and technological reasons no need to use either humans or animals for this purpose. Only for a small amount of mobile power the other systems described could find an application in future. Best, Oliver