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December 5, 2012

Run For Power (In a Hamster Wheel!)

Would you run in a hamster wheel to save the Earth?  That was the question posed by Outside Magazine in response to a proposal by a Lebanese industrial engineer who presumably had a creative stroke of genius during one of the frequent power outages in his home town of Beirut. 

His brainchild is essentially a modern treadmill that harvests energy – and if the technology is applied in large enough quantities, may pose a very viable alternative to traditional sources.

It got my friend Mike and I to thinking about whether or not runners and cyclists would embrace the idea enough to make it work – and it became the inspiration for the Monterey Herald column that follows below.

Running Life 11/29/12                                                 “Run for Power”

Last week was Thanksgiving – and if you ask any runner what he or she is thankful for, the ability to run will be fairly high on the list. 

So how can a grateful runner pay that blessing forward?   There are several routes you can take.  You can volunteer at a race.  You can invite a friend to go running with you.  You can help a running partner train to set a personal record.

Or if you’re more globally minded, you can help to save the world.

All photos from YankoDesign.com

At least, that’s the idea a Lebanese industrial designer named Nadim Inaty proposed this summer to a website called Yanko Design, an online magazine dedicated to introducing innovative concepts in all walks of life.  Inaty’s design was complete with specs and schematics, and the discussion that followed further clarified precisely how runners and cyclists can produce green energy and decrease our collective reliance on fossil fuels.

Click photos to enlarge

Yes, it’s ambitious, but the whole notion is actually quite plausible.  Here’s how the Yanko site describes it: “Green Wheel is an exercise machine that transforms kinetic energy produced by the human body into electricity. Multiple machines are connected to a central energy storage unit where electricity can then be supplemented to road lights and traffic lights.”  Essentially, the machine is a large (3 meter diameter) hamster wheel that is powered by humans; it’s not the most flattering exercise invention ever created, but then again, neither is spandex.

Inaty imagines that units could be placed in public spaces – his prototype features grassy rest areas surrounding the wheel - and that users could donate their jogging time in exchange for a place to run.  Have you ever run along the coastline and wished the view could last forever?  Well, if a Green Wheel was parked along the rec trail somewhere, you’d enjoy the same scenic vista throughout your entire run. 

At the very least, a unit would be a step up from the treadmill, which has been antagonizing runners ever since the days of George Jetson.  If your health club installed a few Green Wheels alongside the regular treadmills, wouldn’t you rather pick the one that had some external benefit?  Don’t worry, someone will figure out a way to show your favorite TV program inside the wheel by the time we get there.

Health clubs can make an even more tangible impact if similar technology is incorporated into exercise bikes.  Imagine a spin class full of energetic 30-somethings pumping their legs up and down like crazy, generating small increments of electricity with each pedal stroke.   If nothing else, the power they create will offset all the hot water they’ll use when showering afterwards.

For the concept to succeed, Green Wheels need to be used in large numbers, because the power output is somewhat low.  By Inaty’s calculations, a single unit used for 30 minutes will produce roughly 120 watts – which is enough to light a compact fluorescent bulb for five hours, or to charge 12 mobile phones.  Yes, it’s small in individual doses – but think about how many treadmills, elliptical trainers, and stationary bikes are in motion all day long in gyms and health clubs all over the country.  If each of those machines contributed a small charge to the grid, the impact on city infrastructures could become significant.

Therefore, another necessary component is altruism, in that runners or cyclists will voluntarily contribute their efforts for the greater good – which is where the whole Thanksgiving thing comes back in.  If you’ve been blessed with the ability to run, wouldn’t you appreciate a creative way to leverage that gift for a greater good?  Or if you’re looking for a unique way to get in shape, would this kind of eco-friendly mission be enough to inspire you?

The Earth needs your help.  Get out there and run!

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Dave 12/6/12, 12:20 AM  

ok - its probably very politically incorrect but I think that there is a lot of excess stored energy sitting on people's bodies that could be converted to energy. The hamster wheel would be ideal for this conversion!

Peter Groves 12/6/12, 12:42 AM  

This could overcome my disdain for dreadmills - but not if I had to watch TV at the same time! And wouldn't the TV's power consumption negate the whole exercise?

Anonymous,  12/6/12, 3:22 AM  

We could put these in dog kennels. Dog power!

Jay Fast 12/6/12, 7:25 AM  

I've often wondered if stationary bikes and treadmills could somehow harness the energy that we expend when we exercise. I would gladly run on a treadmill or in a hamster wheel, especially if it cut my personal energy costs for my household.

sara 12/6/12, 8:16 AM  

spinning bikes like the ones you propose already exist ... i used to go to a class that had a few. the bikes were rarely used because the other bikes in the room gave a superior ride, but it was nice to have an option to "catch" that energy we were creating in class.

Gretchen 12/6/12, 8:39 PM  

A number of gyms already do this, actually. Stationary bikes generate electricity and the gym's use it as part of their power supply. I recall reading that the amount of energy generated pales in comparison to the amount used by the gym, but hey, every little bit helps.

Anonymous,  12/23/12, 7:52 AM  

I don't think runner's altruism is the main challenge - I think many would participate. A major challenge is also the capital expenditure necessary to build and install them. Where does that capital come from?

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