A Piece of the Piezoelectric Pie

The idea that human motion can contribute back to the power grid is intriguing. So it’s natural to ask if, and how, the energy produced by our bodies in motion could contribute to our electricity needs. This notion seems to have been in the air when Metropolis called for entries to its 2007 Next Generation Design Competition on the theme of energy. Piezoelectric technology and its applications were proposed by more than a half-dozen entries; there are many similarities between the projects.

Peter Treadway emailed us about 2007 Next Generation runner-up, Elizabeth Redmond’s project, POWERLeap, which he “found to be shocking. Not for its generation of electrical energy but rather for its doppelganger-level similarity to a project I completed in 2004 while attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

“Ordinarily I would feel generally put off that I had come up with something that someone else got to the media with first and grudgingly leave it at that, but in this case I actually got to the media first and am afraid this young lady has likely knocked off my ‘Powerfloor’—if you can believe the closeness in name.”

Treadway attached images of his proposal, published in the Oct/Nov ‘04 Dwell magazine, stating that “Dwell is no local publication that flies under the radar in the design world and I frankly feel that this is out and out plagiarism.” He added that Art Center has a full documentation of the project which was sponsored by Idealab! in Pasadena.

We asked Elizabeth Redmond to respond to the allegations. “POWERleap began as my senior thesis project in Art and Design School at the University of Michigan in 2005. I came up with a series of concepts that harnessed human exertion for electrical generation: wearable, stationary objects, residential plans, and public infrastructures.

“The flooring tiles are intended for public spaces and were designed for city sidewalks. The project was initially titled ‘Project Power Struggle’ as it was all-encompassing of these ideas about energy and consumption.” The name seemed a bit obscure to the editors at Metropolis who worked with Redmond to find a better one. The result was POWERLeap. So, in terms of the name, Redmond believes that Treadway “could only claim plagiarism if I used the exact same title. Additionally he did not use capital letters and his title is not trademarked. I have never seen the Dwell article and obviously if I was ripping off (which is not the intention of an inventor) I would not have chosen such a similar title.

“I am not claiming that I am the first to have come up with this idea. It has been talked about, conceptualized about, written about, and designed for decades, but to my knowledge no one has actually designed this using piezoelectric technology, nor have I ever seen documentation of an actual prototype. I came up with a unique technology and design. This is what I claim to be my own. I also have a unique description of the extrapolated effect of the concept. The only visual he has for his concept is a drawing of an indoor wooden floor. My visuals are of an actual completed and functioning prototype.

“If he has read anything about my project he will realize that it goes beyond the concept of harnessing human exertion. POWERleap is a educational tool for social awareness about our energy consumption cycle.

“I consider myself an inventor. The point of inventing and innovating is not to rip off other ideas. It is to come up with fresh and inspiring concepts. I am not working on this and putting my ideas out there for money or fame. I am instead seeking opportunities for collaboration and am hopeful that this idea (that many are talking about) can go somewhere. He should consider looking into all the other individuals and design firms working on the same concept as well, as there are many.”

Last year the East Japan Railway Company tested a similar idea in ticket gates at Tokyo’s Shibuya station. In the Next Generation competition the human powered energy projects include a running shoe by runner-up Alberto Villarreal. Among the 2007 entries, which were not selected by the judges, there was Emily Wray’s Energy-Collecting Resilient Flooring and Jay Yowell’s PowerTile, both similar to POWERleap, which beat out those projects because of Redmond’s inclusion of a strong teaching component and her more advanced prototype. James D. Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk submitted an urban design concept and architectonic system to exploit human power, including a prototype of a chair that absorbs energy through the very simple act of sitting. And Yael Miller proposed baby bouncer chairs that harness piezoelectric and electromagnetic technology.

Observing all this human energy and creativity in the service of the earth and humanity is inspiring. Now, if as Redmond suggests, these smart, inventive people could find ways to collaborate, they’d surely help us make a powerful leap into a new world of energy sources and uses.

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