Is Manpower the most sustainable source of energy?


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In a world where electricity is not guaranteed, kinetic energy devices take on their full meaning. These inventions, which maximize the energy we create with our bodies to charge sources of energy or light, are often marketed for use in areas without reliable access to electricity.

An example of harnessing this power is the Gravity Light, a kinetic resistance flywheel with a removable bag that users can fill with rubble, sand, and other weighted material to which they have easy access. Once filled and lifted to its starting point, the bag’s slow descent powers a generator that powers an LED light for 20 minutes.

However, recent advancements in the capture, storage, and transmission of kinetic energy have enabled tech companies to expand affordable power generation beyond these markets. Factories are gaining momentum with inventions such as alternative power sources and lighting solutions to make warehouses and production centers more sustainable.

Maximize the workforce

In Human Power Plant, an ongoing research project in the Netherlands led by students at Utrecht University, researchers aim to convert a building into a fully human-powered facility. Based on the kinetic energy conversion methods used in their human energy durability test, the researchers determined that humans create around 100 Wh per hour of energy production. They are now looking to expand potential opportunities to maximize humans as a source of energy beyond developing communities.

“Humans are versatile energy sources, just like fossil fuels,” said Kris De Decker, one of the students behind the experiment. “They not only provide muscle power that can be converted into mechanical energy or electricity, but also into thermal energy, especially during exercise: a physically active human can generate up to 500 watts of body heat.

“It can be argued that human energy is the most versatile and sustainable energy source on Earth,” said De Decker.

If we can maintain this level of productivity across the world’s population in conjunction with generative energy capture from sources such as GravityLight, generative tiles, and other forms of bioenergy capture, human energy could support energy-intensive installations, such as smart factories, using mainly or exclusively renewable resources.

Can we optimize factories for human power?

Factories put great strain on power grids – machines in manufacturing plants quickly drain large amounts of energy.

But what if factories could use human energy production?

The question is not if, but when and if these same technologies can be used to recover energy lost in counterpart machines as the factory workforce partially shifts to automated operation based on machines. By offsetting some of the peak electrical loads with consistent output from plant workers, companies may be able to reduce their energy costs.

Smart factories are already implementing cost and equipment management systems; modifying these systems to monitor and regulate power output could further help companies reduce their operating costs.

Floor tiles are a great way to recover energy lost by moving objects and materials in the factory. Other ways to include robotic workers in energy cuts include using flywheels and other miniaturized dynamos in robot workpieces, such as propellers and drone wheels.

Is Manpower the cure for non-renewable energy?

The short answer is, unfortunately, no.

As the sole target of clean energy, human power is woefully inefficient. A Stanford study describes an average efficiency of 20-25% in converting food into excess fuel – no fuel needed for essential functions. When adjusted for the inefficiency of the food supply chain, the same study showed that humans average 12.6 mpg compared to energy use in gasoline.

It is estimated that the production of food for humans adds 9% of global warming emissions to the atmosphere (this figure does not include freight transport); the United States consumes an average of 11,980 kWh per capita. According to the EPA, about 27% of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States come from energy production.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Deciwatt

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