Shaping the Future: Elizabeth Redmond Speaks @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Elizabeth Redmond graduated with a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design in 2006 with a focus in sustainable design. She was a runner up in the 2007 Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition for her project PowerLEAP.

Elizabeth Redmond: I want to begin by reminding you of a very simple concept we learned in high school physics, a law of thermodynamics that states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This project is exactly about that. PowerLEAP is an energy generating flooring system that uses our kinetic exertions in everyday activities in public environments. It utilizes that movement and generates electricity. The project is not about hiding the infrastructure; it’s interactive, playful, flirtatious, and exciting. It’s an interaction with technology and with others. It’s also about sustaining culture and the built environment, and about us going out and doing our part to generate electricity.

Here’s a simple way to think about it: When you’re sitting out there and I’m standing up here, we’re each emitting about 100 watts of energy into the environment every second. That’s mostly in heat but as we move down the sidewalk, as we move around in our social spaces, we’re emitting even more than that in kinetic exertion. If we take a look at all of the people walking around in this convention center today, and we think about all of that expended energy, the possibility of harnessing it is exciting. There could be an interface between our feet and the surface we’re stepping on. It could absorb that movement to generate electricity for the overhead lights and to heat up the coffee.

Think about all of the activities we engage in throughout our social spaces such as walking to work, going to the gym, and going out for recreation at night. What better incentives could we have to make our spaces more interactive and create a full, tight circle to generate the electricity for that activity?

PowerLEAP is a flooring system for city sidewalks that generates electricity as we walk about. The technology used in the tiles I’ve designed uses the phenomena of piezoelectrics, which is fundamentally the electricity from applied stress. As a piezoelectric material is compressed, the charge inside the material is displaced to the surface and the polar sides of the material will become charged. This charge can be outputted to generate power to be used as voltage. It’s found in many commonly derived materials such as quartz and topaz, and many applications of it now are in ceramic compounds.

The plate that’s used in the tile looks similar to the stone at the bottom. It’s a lead zirconate titrate ceramic compound. There is a glass layer on top and the plate is mounted on an undulating concrete surface. It’s like a big sandwich of a tile. As the force of our footstep is applied, the glass depresses about 1/32nd of an inch and the plate is compressed. This generates a charge on the surface of the material which in turn generates the voltage to illuminate a series of lights inside each tile. Each participant gets to immediately experience the effect of their participation and their movement throughout city sidewalks. I chose to have the light used right away so that people can experience the immediacy in the reaction.

The pattern cast in the concrete tiles is derived from multiple patterns used in city sidewalks throughout the country. It is split into four pieces so when the smaller concrete blocks are placed they can be rotated to create a modular pattern that is reminiscent of the ripple effect of our participation in the space.

I want to impress upon you that the most important part of PowerLEAP is that you really experience the effect of your participation. The reaction is what will ultimately socially sustain our bind to this project. We can either hide infrastructure into our social spaces, or we can make it clear that our participation is critical to the generation of electricity.

I want to leave you with the point that we all know that our current infrastructure needs a change. The consumption of power can easily be diminished in many ways if we make smart, sustainable choices in using smarter materials and smarter processes. To me, this is a beautiful display of how we can become responsible for our regular actions and for our luxuries. There are endless possibilities within which we could implement this infrastructure. So please come and participate and step on a tile out there and generate a little electricity with me.

Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief, Metropolis: You know, Elizabeth, it’s very interesting because this year the piezoelectricity idea showed up in a lot of places. Where did this come from for you? It’s very interesting how this awareness of your own power, your own system, is leaping into our ideas of where our energy comes from.

Redmond: I originally heard of piezoelectrics with the children’s light up shoes. I took apart some eight pairs of shoes to find out how it works and found that there are 3 volt batteries in them. I never actually found a shoe that had a piezoelectric plate in it. There are plenty of ways now to store energy and harvest it but this is an interface that we can use that really completes the cycle. There’s no dead end to this cycle in that we are constantly consuming and emitting energy.

Szenasy: What I like about this is the immediate feedback. You know you’ve stepped on something and it does something, it actually lights up the streets and your presence is marked, it’s very poetic.

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