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SFU-developed device lets users generate electricity while walking

Aimed at the developing world, the PowerWalk has also caught the interest of the military.

BY JINNA KIM | MAR 20 2013

Access to electricity can be difficult in developing countries, a situation Simon Fraser University professor Max Donelan hopes to change through the power of the human leg. Dr. Donelan, an associate professor of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, and his research team have developed a portable device that generates electricity as you walk. The PowerWalk device is being commercialized by Bionic Power Inc., an SFU spin-off company founded by Dr. Donelan.

The product resembles an athletic knee brace and weighs approximately 750 grams. By wearing one brace on each leg and moving at walking speed, the device generates an average of 12 watts of power. According to the company, that’s enough electricity to charge four cellphones in the span of little over an hour.

Dr. Donelan says the device is very meaningful to him, as it “connects the basic research that I continue to do with making an impact on society. I would not have guessed from the beginning that I would find that as enriching as I do.”

In addition to its promise for developing countries, the PowerWalk is gaining interest for its military applications. Today’s armed forces are increasingly reliant upon portable electronic instruments, such as GPS devices, two-way radios and flashlights, he says. On a 72-hour mission, for example, soldiers can carry as much as 13 kilograms of batteries to power their equipment, which limits their range and speed. Supplying a constant stream of batteries is also costly.

The PowerWalk M-Series is being developed to fulfill these military uses and should be available commercially within a couple of years, Dr. Donelan estimates. Canada’s Department of Defence and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. have contributed approximately $1 million this year for research and development.

Although Dr. Donelan says he appreciates the support of the defence agencies, his long-term goal remains “a broader impact on society, especially societies that are critically in need.”

While development of the PowerWalk continues, Dr. Donelan has something else to be excited about. Recently, he and one of his PhD students, Mark Snaterse, created an app for runners that is receiving positive feedback and lots of media attention. The Cruise Control app lets runners match their steps to music in order to achieve and maintain their desired pace. The work was undertaken at SFU’s Locomotion Laboratory, of which Dr. Donelan is director.

“My hope is that this is the key for people to do something that they’ve been trying to do for a long time, which is to fully integrate their music with their exercise,” says Dr. Donelan. The app has several different modes for users to choose from and is available for download at the Apple Store for $4.99. Although the product is aimed at runners, Dr. Donelan says it’s getting interest from cyclists as well.

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  1. Pezhman / March 25, 2013 at 15:53

    On average, we consume about 2000 to 2500 kilo calories worth of food per day. From this, only a fraction is actually absorbed by the body, roughly as much that generates 100 Watts of power.

    Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Right? If we extract an extra 12 Watts (at least for 100% efficiency) from our body, either we deprive our body or we have to eat more (~12% more!). How is this gonna help “developing countries” or soldiers in the field? or am I missing something here?

    I do not know how tax payers would think about funding these research projects, but hiding hard facts is certainly not up to the measures of academic integrity.

  2. Alex Lautensach / March 25, 2013 at 19:49

    What an excellent idea! Most citizens of affluent countries take in way too much food energy, so there is plenty to spare. On the other hand, we rely inidividually on numerous low-voltage devices that for some reason still come without solar chargers. If this device can be miniaturised and mass-produced in trousers it could save a lot of problems for people “on the go”.