meatricity.jpg

Meatricity is the electricity generated by the muscle power of humans or other animals. After a great day working on project ideas for Alternative Energy module in next summer’s Learn 2 Teach / Teach 2 Learn program at the South End Technology Center, I drove by a huge workout gym sort of filled with beautiful people transferring energy.

The idea of using people and animals to generate electricity is nothing new. Hand cranked or shaken flashlights are pretty popular, there are even examples of bicycle powered generators to illuminate holiday decorations. In Make 5, the Made on Earth column features a project where a person’s backpack generates electricity as the wearer moves around. The Rodent Powered Night Light is an excellent example of the pet power version of Meatricity.

Certainly westerners have a much larger appetite for using power than they have desire to generate it, but many of our devices now have small rechargeable batteries that could be reloaded by having a passive or active generation scheme available.

So how about it? Could we as a culture generate more of our electricity from the muscle we carry around? What kinds of benefits would meatricity provide to us and our kids? How would exercise equipment need to be redesigned to capture the energy of the user? Could we see it as morally superior to use Meatricity than power generated from burning fossil fuels? Add your ideas in the comments, and contribute your photos and videos to the Make Flickr pool.

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Chris Connors

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


  • Archvillain

    Look at the numbers: if you have the option of using the grid, but instead of using it you compete with it, you are wasting resources and doing environmental harm. The environmental cost of electricity is massively reduced by economy of scale.
    I’d suggest that the way to get energy for lower environmental cost is if it is available at pretty much zero cost – eg the generator you use must be built entirely out of stuff that was about to go to the dump, you build and install it on a budget of $0, with time that you would not otherwise be using productively.

    Which is to say – it’s quite doable as a project! But taking the easy route and ripping apart working items for parts, buying supplies, and/or using kilowatt hours of powertools, is the opposite of helping the planet.

    Another observation: “Electricity is fossil fuels” seems to be largely an American perspective, because the USA is a giant mountain of free coal. Renewable energy has to compete with “free!” in the USA, so they don’t get much traction. But a lot of countries are not sitting on a mountain of free energy, and they still have a grid – sans fossil fuels. Electricity can be and is made from anything (as is the point of meatricity), so in many places, the grid is not dirty while meatricity is – as noted, even at its dirtiest, the grid is still cleaner than most small-scale production)

  • Perry Jones

    I haven’t run any numbers, but I imagine it would be more efficient to directly burn food at the farm to run generators to power the grid. The power grid surely transfers energy more efficiently than our food distribution networks.

    Putting gensets on exercise bikes would harvest energy that would otherwise be wasted, but then you’d have to find a safe and legal way to backfeed the power. Even then we’re talking about trivial amounts of energy.

    I encourage people to explore the idea, and it’d be great if someone could genuinely prove me wrong, but I’m not expecting anything significant here.

    • Chris Connors

      @Perry and Archvillan

      Every new system has to start someplace. A hundred and fifty years ago people’s houses were lit at night by candles and whale oil lanterns. Getting to LED lit interior spaces powered by wind, solar or meatricity is not a straight line.

      Five years ago, you would have thought a hand cranked flashlight was an incredible novelty. Shaker flashlights were virtualy unheard of ten years ago.

      If you needed to buy a flashlight today, would you give a whole lot of thought of a $15 mini maglight that used a light bulb and alkaline batteries? Of course, you would seriously consider buying a cranky light. I saw a 3 pack of decent looking meatricity lights for $10 last week. Somebody has figured out how to make money on these lights. It didn’t happen overnight.

      So if the cranky lights work, when do we get our cranky cell chargers? How difficult can it be for them to add a usb port and a 5 volt regulator? Certainly somebody can figure out a hack to add the feature, and then the manufacturers can follow suit.

      If you leave your wall adapter charger plugged in when you are not charging your phone, you are wasting that precious coal powered grid delivered electricity. Your carbon footprint is getting larger, just because you forgot, or didn’t care to unplug after charging. The easiest energy to make is the juice you free up from conservation.

      Lets move as much of our electrical devices off grid and get the energy however we can.

      Give it a shot, see what you can make.

      Thanks
      Chris

  • Adam Lee Schwartzentruber

    I am planning an installation for late January to early February that involves a pedal bike generating heat and light through a permanent magnet generator.

    hoepfully we’ll all see it up then.

    love
    adam

  • Archvillain

    @Chris

    I bought my first cranky cellphone charger 3 years ago, they’ve been around for a while. I assume they’re still largely under the radar because they’re not useful. You could charge a cellphone from an exercise bike, no problem, but doing it with a hand crank gadget is mind-numbingly tedious – it’s not exercise, it’s not activity, it’s not something you can multi-task, it’s just a pain. (In both cases, the cost to the environment is going to be higher than using the grid – generally you’d wear your equipment out before it generated enough to more than offset the environmental cost of its construction, and in reality, it’s unlikely to get used even that much)

    I’m not knocking meatricity as a kneejerk thing – I love this kind of stuff, many of my hobbies revolve around it, I’ve built this stuff, and I’ve iterated and modified and improved on it, and it is for THIS reason – experience and enthusiasm – that it pains me to see demonstrably bad ideas wasting time and talent. But perhaps it’s like dead-reckoning in robotics – people just have to learn the hard way that the intuitive road is a dead end that can’t get them to where they’re trying to go. Roboticists (who themselves went through the same phase) try to explain, but it always falls on deaf ears.

    I think my favourite meatricity device so far is frictionless-dynamo bike lights, and they really are wonderful. Because they don’t drag on the bike like the dynamos of old, they can be on all the time, so I never have to turn them on or off, I just hop on the bike and go, and I never need to deal with batteries. They are an example of meatricity making my life noticeably better. (Something I wouldn’t say about my meatricity lamps, chargers, radios, etc.)

    At the other end of the spectrum of environmentally friendly off-grid power, are those terrible solar powered garden path lamps. To produce them cheaply, they use toxic Cadmium batteries, and those batteries are charge-cycled every day, so within a year or two, they’re ruined, the light ceases to work, and they become landfill – which not only puts cadmium into landfill, but it dumps a solar panel that ought to be producing power for another 30 years, and which needs another few years of power generation to break even environmentally.

    Every last aspect of these stupid things are an environmental disaster, compared to the trivial inconvenience of a few cents of underground wire to the nearest wall socket – a fraction of the environmental cost for twenty times the operational lifespan. And yet these things are marketed as environmentally friendly. (And to add insult to injury, they don’t even give off enough light to be anything but ornaments.)

    Their only redeeming feature is that their built-in failure provides an unending source of free solar panels for us tinkerers :)

    But what I’m saying is – it’s trendy to dis the grid, especialy because the grid in the USA is so dirty, but we still use centralised power generation for a very good reason – economy of scale makes even a dirty grid far and away the most efficient (and environmentally friendly) source of power per watt that we have. If one’s goal in meatricity is the environment, then you MUST understand the how and why of this, else you’re just going to end up making feel-good self-delusionary snake-oil that leads down the wrong path.

    • Chris Connors

      @Archvillan
      Lets not get hung up to much on ‘what can’t work’ and focus more on ‘what could work’ or ‘what does work’.

      Then we can put more attention on ‘what I have tried’ and ‘what is available in the market’

      Your solar walkway lights is a great example of where we can get parts for projects, experiments and supplies. When the season changes, and they have gone on sale, buy them all up at 50% off or better and get tinkering.

      The more people see these things and get thinking about their magic, the more likely they will take root.

      Here is a photo that I took last summer of a really cool device: http://flickr.com/photos/connors934/2704428556/in/set-72157606385741519/ It has a fan that is used to generate electricity, serves as a flashlight, and has a usb port for charging things. The fan moves with just about a whisper of wind, and the guy who had it used it on long long bike trips to keep his stuff charged. He said it had almost no noticeable aerodynamic drag. Lots of benefit, no recognizable downside.

      There are many things we can do or have done. Show them off and get people curious about the good paths. You mentioned he frictionless dynamo generator on the bike. I haven’t heard much about that. Have you got one? Have you done some experimentation with it? Show us some pictures, or maybe even a review and help the rest of us think in that good and productive direction.

      Thanks for you thoughts
      Chris

  • Andy

    Math is boring!
    A can-do attitude is much more fun.

    Don’t worry about how much energy it takes to manufacture a generator. Just keep concentrating on how much energy (Don’t actually calculate it, though.) is being wasted if we don’t manufacture that generator.

    This is a great idea so long as electricity remains cheap enough that no one has to do the math.

    • Chris Connors

      @Andy
      Doing is quite essential. In this case, the more people realize that they can make their own meatricity, the more magic there is to it. As an owner of a phone with a notoriously lousy battery, I would definitely like to be able to charge on the fly. What I would very much not want to do, however, is to further damage my battery. To keep from wrecking my battery, I think it would be handy to know just how much meatricity I would need to generate to fully charge the battery. That would depend on which motor I was using, how many revolutions it was turned, and the capacity of any intermediate storage medium.

      Figuring out just how much juice the battery will need can be done with math. Lighting an LED, a flashlight, fm radio or some other forgiving use for the power will be a great place to start. Eventually, if you are going to get to the advanced work with the concepts of electrical engineering, you’ll need to build some personal knowledge of some more complex math and physics.

      By all means, just get to it. You can prove that meatricity works by busting open an old cd drive, wiring some LEDs to the dc motor that moves the tray in and out, and seeing what happens when you push or pull the tray.

      As Miss Frizzle would say: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Magic_School_Bus

      Thanks for your ideas
      Chris

  • mrmeval

    is people TOO!

  • oyun

    Figuring out just how much juice the battery will need can be done with math. Lighting an LED, a flashlight, fm radio or some other forgiving use for the power will be a great place to start. Eventually, if you are going to get to the advanced work with the concepts of electrical engineering, you’ll need to build some personal knowledge of some more complex math and physics.
    Oyunlar
    Oyun

  • oyunlar

    There are many things we can do or have done. Show them off and get people curious about the good paths. You mentioned he frictionless dynamo generator on the bike. I haven’t heard much about that. Have you got one? Have you done some experimentation with it? Show us some pictures, or maybe even a review and help the rest of us think in that good and productive direction. http://www.antalyahotelsguide.info

  • Avatar Oyunları

    I think my favourite meatricity device so far is frictionless-dynamo bike lights, and they really are wonderful. Because they don’t drag on the bike like the dynamos of old, they can be on all the time, so I never have to turn them on or off, I just hop on the bike and go, and I never need to deal with batteries. They are an example of meatricity making my life noticeably better. (Something I wouldn’t say about my meatricity lamps, chargers, radios, etc.avatar Oyunları

    • Avatar Oyunları

      not knocking meatricity as a kneejerk thing – I love this kind of stuff, many of my hobbies revolve around it, I’ve built this stuff, and I’ve iterated and modified and improved on it, and it is for THIS reason – experience and enthusiasm – that it pains me to see demonstrably bad ideas wasting time and talent. But perhaps it’s like dead-reckoning in robotics – people just have to learn the hard way that the intuitive road is a dead end that can’t get them to where they’re trying to go. Roboticists (who themselves went through the same phase) try to explain, but it always falls on deaf ears.http://avatar-oyunlari.oyunyolu.net/