Human Power, Past And Future

We will assume you’ve seen The Matrix — it was from 1999, after all. The surprise, at the end, was that humans were being used as human batteries to power a civilization of intelligent machines. But aside from just putting out some heat, the idea does have some precedent. After all, humans powered machines like mills, sewing machines, and pumps for centuries before there were good alternatives.


Galley ship
Reconstruction of a squadron of ancient Greek galley ships.

Early machines used hand cranks, treadwheels, treadles, and even pedal power to harness energy from humans. Consider, for example, an ancient galley ship with many oarsmen providing an engine. This wasn’t a great use of human power. An oarsman on a galley used his arms and back but didn’t much use his legs. The legs, though, have larger muscles and are often stronger. A pedal boat or racing shell would have been much more efficient, but without mass production of strong metal parts, it would have been difficult to build and maintain such machines in ancient times.

There was a time when pedals or treadles operated lots of machines from sewing machines to lathes. There were even old radios able to transmit and receive with no external power thanks to pedals as late as the 1940s.

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Power For Nothing And Your Kicks For Free

We all know that you can convert heat into electricity. Usually, you do that with some form of steam, but there are other methods, too, including thermocouples. If you’ve ever seen something producing waste heat, you’ll appreciate Penn State’s work to harvest power from hot pipes. The idea is simple in theory: create a flexible thermoelectric generator that can wrap around hot pipes or other surfaces to gather otherwise lost heat. The full (paywalled) paper is also available.

The devices can produce up to 150% more power per unit area compared to other thermoelectric generators. A three-square-inch test device produced over 50 watts. Scale that up to an industrial pipe hundreds of feet long, and you could create some serious power. To accomplish this, the scientists used strips of six thermocouples and connected them for a total of 72 thermocouples. Liquid metal between layers improved the device’s performance.

This isn’t a totally new idea. Russia was famous for making radios in the 1950s that operated using a generator that went around the flue of a kerosene lamp. Since the Russians were pulling this off in the 1950s, converting heat into electricity is obviously nothing new. Of course, your body creates heat, too, so why not use that?

BFree Brings Intermittent Computing To Python

Generally speaking, we like our computing devices to remain on and active the whole time we’re using them. But there are situations, such as off-grid devices that run on small solar cells, where constant power is by no means a guarantee. That’s where the concept of intermittent computing comes into play, and now thanks to the BFree project, you can develop Python software that persists even when the hardware goes black.

Implemented as a shield that attaches to a Adafruit Metro M0 Express running a modified CircuitPython interpreter, BFree automatically makes “checkpoints” as the user’s code is running so that if the power is unexpectedly cut, it can return the environment to a known-good state instantaneously. The snapshot of the system, including everything from the variables stored in memory to the state of each individual peripheral, is stored on the non-volatile FRAM of the MSP430 microcontroller on the BFree board; meaning even if the power doesn’t come back on for weeks or months, the software will be ready to leap back into action.

In addition to the storage for system checkpoints, the BFree board also includes energy harvesting circuity and connections for a solar panel and large capacitor. Notably, the system has no provision for a traditional battery. You can keep the Metro M0 Express plugged in while developing your code, but once you’re ready to test in the field, the shield is in charge of powering up the system whenever it’s built up enough of a charge.

The product of a collaboration between teams at Northwestern University and Delft University of Technology, BFree is actually an evolution of the battery-free handheld game they developed around this time last year. While that project was used to raise awareness of how intermittent computing works, BFree is clearly a more flexible platform, and is better suited for wider experimentation.

We’ve seen a fair number of devices that store up small amounts of energy over the long term for quick bouts of activity, so we’re very interested to see what the community can come up with when that sort of hardware is combined with software that can be paused until its needed.

Turning Heat Into Electricity

You don’t really create energy, you convert it from one form to another. For example, many ways that we generate electricity use heat from burning or nuclear decay to generate steam which turns a generator. Thermocouples generate electricity directly from heat, but generally not very much. Still, some nuclear batteries directly convert heat to electricity, they just aren’t very efficient. Now researchers have developed a way of preparing a material that is better at doing the conversion: tin selenide.

Tin selenide is known to have good performance converting heat into electricity when in its crystal form. However, practical applications are more likely to use polycrystalline forms, which are known to have reduced conversion performance.

The material works well because it is not very thermally conductive and it has a favorable band structure that allows multiple bands to participate in charge transport. However, in polycrystal configurations, the results are not as good due to higher thermal conductivity. Yet crystalline tin selenide is difficult to manufacture and not very robust in real-world use.

The team worked out that the polycrystal material’s thermal properties were due to tin oxide films on the surface. Using a particular method of construction, you can remove the tin oxide and improve performance even better than the crystal version of tin selenide.

Creating this material might be beyond your garage lab, though. You need a fused silica oven that can reach a pretty tight vacuum. Although you might be able to swing it. Otherwise, you might stick with more conventional methods.

Magic Pyramids Blink Eternal With The Power Of The Sun

Without knowing it, we’ve spent years watching [Jasper Sikken] piece together an empire of energy harvesting equipment, and now he’s putting the pieces together into wonderful creations. His recently finished solar harvesting pyramids are mesmerizing objects of geometric perfection we’d love to see glinting in the sun.

These solar harvesting pyramids are well described by their name. Each one contains a PCBA around 30mm on a side with a solar energy harvester built around the dedicated AEM10941 IC, a single solar cell, and a very bright green LED. [Jasper] calculates that the solar cell will charge the super capacitor at 20uA at with just 200 lux of light (a level typical for casual indoor spaces) letting it run indefinitely when placed indoors. Amazingly with the LED blinking for 15ms every 2 seconds it will run for 21 days in complete darkness. And that’s it! This is a software-free piece of hardware which requires no input besides dim light and blinks an LED indefinitely.

Small PCBA, large capacitor

What about that super capacitor? It’s called a Lithium Ion Capacitor (LIC) and is a hybrid between a typical rechargeable lithium battery and an electrolytic capacitor, offering extremely high capacity in a convenient two leg through hole form factor. This one is a whopping 30 Farad at 3.8 V, and we first saw it when [Jasper] won the Hackaday Earth Day contest last month. Check out that link if you want to know more about their uses and how to integrate them.

For more detail about all of the components of the solar pyramid we need only turn to the Hackaday archives. In December 2019 [Tom Nardi] wrote about building a cheap degassing system for making some very familiar looking resin pyramids. And before that [Donald Papp] brought us another familiar piece of the pyramid when he wrote up a different 1″ x 1″ solar harvesting system that [Jasper] designed.

Check out the video after the break to see what one of these gems looks like from all sides. And for many more experiments leading up the final pyramid check out the logs on the page.

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Human-Powered Laser Gun Makes Battery-Free Target Practice

[Dirk] shared a fascinating project of his that consists of several different parts coming together in a satisfying whole. It’s all about wanting to do target practice, indoors, using a simple red laser dot instead of any sort of projectile. While it’s possible to practice by flashing a red laser pointer and watching where it lands on a paper target, it’s much more rewarding (and objective) to record the hits in some way. This is what led [Dirk] to create human-powered, battery-free laser guns with software to track and display hits. In the image above, red laser hits on the target are detected and displayed on the screen by the shooter.

Right under the thumb is the pivot point for the lever, and that’s also where a geared stepper motor (used as a generator) is housed. Operating the action cranks the motor.

There are several parts to this project and, sadly, the details are a bit incomplete and somewhat scattered around, so we’ll go through the elements one at a time. The first is the guns themselves, and the star of the show is his 3D printed cowboy rifle design. The rifle paints the target with a momentary red laser dot when the trigger is pressed, but that’s not all. [Dirk] appears to have embedded a stepper motor into the lever action, so that working the lever cranks the motor as a generator and stores the small amount of power in a capacitor. Upon pulling the trigger, the capacitor is dumped into the laser (and into a piezo buzzer for a bit of an audio cue, apparently) with just enough juice to create a momentary flash. We wish [Dirk] had provided more details about this part of his build. There are a few more images here, but if you’d like to replicate [Dirk]’s work it looks like you’ll be on your own to some extent.

As for the target end of things, blipping a red dot onto a paper target and using one’s own eyeballs can do the job in a bare minimum sort of way, but [Dirk] went one further. He used Python and OpenCV with a camera to watch for the red dot, capture it, then push an image of the target (with a mark where the impact was detected) to a Chromecast-enabled screen near the shooter. This offers much better feedback and allows for easier scoring. The GitHub repository for the shot detector and target caster is here, and while it could be used on its own to detect any old laser pointer, it really sings when combined with the 3D printed cowboy rifle that doesn’t need batteries.

Not using projectiles in target practice does have some benefits: it’s silent, it’s easy to do safely, there is no need for a backstop, there are no consumables or cleaning, and there is no need to change or patch targets once they get too many holes. Watch it all in action in the video embedded below.

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Can You Piezo A Peugeot?

Car manufacturers have a problem when it comes to climate change. Among the variety of sources for extra atmospheric CO2 their products are perhaps those most in the public eye, and consequently their marketing departments are resorting to ever more desperate measures to sanctify them with a green aura. Among these are the French marque Peugeot, whose new electric version of their 208 model features in a slick video alongside a futuristic energy-harvesting billboard.

This is no ordinary billboard, nor is it a conventional wind turbine or solar array, instead it harvests ambient noise in one of the busiest parts of Paris, and turns it into electricity to charge the car with an array of piezoelectric energy capture units. This caught our eye here at Hackaday, because it seemed rather too good to be true. Is it a marketing stunt, or could you make a piezo billboard as a practical green energy device? Let’s take a closer look.

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