Some people think the road to tomorrow’s most practical alternative energy source will be embedded with piezoelectric crystals capable of converting the mechanical strain of on-road vehicles into electrical current or voltage. Haim Abramovich, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, is one of these thinkers. Testing piezoelectrics in roads Abramovich is the CEO and cofounder of Innowattech, a privately-held Technion spin-off established to develop and market what Innowattech’s website describes as “a new breed of piezoelectric generators.” Abramovich says these devices- called Innowattech Piezo Electric Generators or “IPEGs” - can harvest mechanical energy created by changes in weight, motion, vibration and temperature, and convert it to electrical current. Innowattech claims to be the first firm to demonstrate industrial-scale piezoelectric solutions and vows its IPEGs can use piezoelectric principles to “harvest” energy from traffic moving across roads, railways and airline runways. The firm has created three different versions of IPEGs specifically for this purpose (see diagram above). In January 2009, the firm’s roadway IPEG will be put to the test on a 100-meter strip of four-lane highway in northern Israel. Innowattech claims the roadway, embedded with a network of IPEGs installed just below its surface, will generate up to 400 kilowatts of power that can be transferred to the public grid or used locally for special projects like lighting. Piezoelectrics vs. solar and wind According to Innowattech, IPEGs offer these advantages over other “green” alternative energy sources:
● IPEGs are easy and inexpensive to install. Embedded between a road’s layers, they are mounted with electronic cards to store traffic-generated energy. The system is usually covered with a layer of asphalt, but concrete or composite concrete and asphalt can also be used. Because systems can be installed when new roads are laid or when regular maintenance work is performed on existing surfaces, installation costs are substantially less than those incurred with either wind or solar systems, Innowattech says.
● IPEGs do not require the development and dedication of vast new areas of public space.
● IPEGs can be used anywhere there’s heavy vehicle traffic and are not restricted to specific climates, weather, time of day or geographic areas.
● Once installed, IPEGs require little or no maintenance.
● Specially programmed IPEGs have the ability to make roads “smart,” enabling real-time reports to be generated on the number, weight, frequency and distances between the vehicles using the road.
Innowattech has competition. In December, the East Japan Railway Co. began testing piezoelectric “devices” installed in front of ticket windows at select train stations in Japan. Activated by the footsteps of people buying train tickets, the EJRC’s devices are expected to produce 1,400 kilowatts of power - sufficient to feed all the lights and displays in the station, the EJRC says. Tests are slated to continue through February 2009.