If you ever thought that walking somewhere was a waste of energy, this one's going to prove you wrong. The idea of piezoelectricity goes back to the 19th century, and the physics is pretty straightforward. Simply put, it is electrical energy produced from mechanical pressure. Using piezoelectric technology, sensors in a floor, for example, could capture the electrical charge produced by the mechanical pressure of a footstep. Crystal or ceramic piezo materials convert the pressure to an electrical charge, which is stored for use as a power source. While piezoelectricity has powered lights in a dance club, it hasn't yet been used as a widespread source of power in crowded, happy-feet places like malls, but rest assured, people are pondering the possibilities.
The East Japan Railway Company tried out a piezoelectric floor system in 2006. In a follow-up experiment begun in early 2008, the company installed floor pads at ticket gates to test piezoelectric materials as well as the performance and capacity of power generation. The electricity generated was designed to power the ticket gates and lighting.
Duke University ended up abandoning plans to use a piezoelectric floor as part of a student housing experiment because the cost of the installation didn't justify the small amount of power produced.
Meanwhile, dance clubs have installed piezoelectric floor systems, primarily to power LED lights. The energy produced by dancers on a packed piezoelectric floor generates only 60 percent of the total energy required to operate the club [source: Daily Mail]. In 2010, similar technology was installed in some areas of sidewalk in Toulouse, France, to power lights. The pilot project was intended to try out the technology to see if foot energy could really be captured in a useful way. While Toulouse, the hub of French technology and its space program, is the first city to capture piezoelectric energy generation in its sidewalks, the installation garnered a lot of interest in the technology from other municipalities and heavily foot-trafficked event spaces. That same free energy source that's powering Japanese ticket booths could end up in sports stadiums and grocery stores, among others.
But the piezoelectric pads are not just made for pedestrians. Companies like Innowattech in Israel have experimented with them under railroad tracks and inside sections of highway [source: Huffington Post]. Eventually large piezo pads could start spilling out literally megawatts-worth of electricity just by getting driven over. If it works out, commuter-hell highways like the ones traversing Los Angeles and Atlanta could start putting electrons onto the local power grid.
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