IBM 5 in 5: Generating energy from unexpected sources

Editor's note: This post about IBM's Next 5 in 5 prediction about future energy sources is by IBM Distinguished Engineer Harry Kolar.

It happens all the time; you forget your cell phone charger at home, and your smartphone battery runs out after hours of email and Angry Birds. But what if you could recharge your cell phone using power you’ve generated simply by walking?

Anything that moves has the potential to create energy. In the next five years, advances in renewable energy technology could make it possible for us to draw on power generated by everything from our running shoes to the ocean’s waves.

Your body will become an energy-generating machine

Walking involves a variety of dynamic forces. The strike of your heel on the ground and the bend of your sole release a lot of dissipated energy.

These simple movements can become a power source, enough to charge your cell phone, with the help of small device with an antenna inserted into the sole of your shoe.

This science -- parasitic power collection -- pulls and transmits energy created by the slightest movement.

Think about the possibilities. A device on the spokes of your bicycle could measure and collect energy that’s then transmitted to power your kitchen appliances. The water running through your pipes could power on the lights in your house.

Now think bigger: what could you do if you could harness the energy of the ocean?

You can harness the power of the ocean

Wave energy and tidal energy are developing forms of clean energy that are virtually limitless. They’re clean, renewable, and will lessen the strain on our traditional power grids.

Wave energy and tidal energy are collected from the ocean in different ways. Most wave energy converters float on the surface of the water and use various designs to generate electricity. The tidal energy converters typically sit on the sea floor and are completely submerged. They look like large turbines or propellers that spin with the incoming and outgoing tides. Tidal energy is quite predictable due to the periodic nature of the tides, while wave energy requires more complicated modeling to predict characteristics over time. 

Before we can make use of these energies, however, we need to understand and minimize their environmental impact. For example, the devices that collect and convert wave and tidal energy generate noise underwater that can affect marine life.

My team is working with The Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland to use real-time streaming analytics that monitor the underwater noise and track its potential impact on the marine environment. That data will be shared across the wave energy industry to help build a clearer picture of how this type of technology can be safely, sustainably used and controlled.

Beyond the obvious benefits like cleaner power, using the ocean’s energy could have significant economic benefits.

High-wave energy conditions exist in many areas around the world and could have real value for coastal countries like Ireland, which has one of the largest concentrations of wave energy in the world, yet had to import about 86 percent of its energy (mostly fossil fuels) in 2010.

The economic ecosystem that will surround wave energy generation sites will involve many parties and bring considerable investment. Power companies will become involved to provide grid connections. Specialty disciplines in marine engineering will be involved in ways like care and maintenance for the sites.

Information Technology will be a key participant in this process too. The integration of leading-edge technologies like advanced analytics and smart grid components will help connect and manage new renewable resources and ensure operational efficiencies as well as consistent and predictable performance. 

IT will be needed for monitoring, analysis, simulation and modeling. IT will also help monitor and capture the economic performance of the technology and further support the application of these new renewable energy sources.

Making it easy to make smarter energy choices

Now more than ever, we’re starting to understand the need to conserve energy. With populations growing and electricity demand expected to grow at 2.2 percent per year to 2035 (according to the World Energy Outlook 2010), our current energy infrastructure is just not enough.

But our consumer decisions are motivated by factors like convenience, comfort, cost and the opportunity for digital connection. We need access to the right tools and information to make smarter energy consumption decisions, and those tools are getting closer to reality thanks to technology like parasitic power collection and wave and tidal energy.

Think this topic is the most-likely prediction, or maybe just the most innovative, among the Next 5 in 5? Vote for it by clicking "like" on IBM's smarter planet.


  1. How about creating a Standard and a Label for “Energy Collecting Compliant Systems” ?
    Maybe some ideas here : http://playducation.unige.ch/

  2. In the warm months, my house's attic is so hot, you could fry an egg on a pan up there in five minutes and yet there is no practical way with a reasonably short ROI to convert that heat into electricity. In fact, I have to consume electricity to offset the heat with air conditioning. How hot does the asphalt on the average Los Angeles highway get and yet nobody has figured out a way to capture that?

    So talking about the electicity that can be generated from a bicycle (something my parents' bikes did to power their bike headlamps) and which requires you to spend more leg muscle energy due to resistance than it creates when there are so many more practical in-your-face seems trite.

  3. As smartphones get smarter -- and battery power becomes more critical -- a new market race for parasitic power could emerge. A strong candidate is photovoltaic plastic, which builds solar cells into everyday plastic components. Imagine a line of clothing with photovoltaic thread that could generate electricity from your clothing. Your smartphone would never go dead. Of course, to make this line of clothing cool it would have to come from a company like Armani. No problem, to really work well the clothing would need to be black.

  4. Why not use all that energy you expend in the gym on the running machine, bicycle, rowing machine to generate electricity to put back into the grid, rather than wasting it powering the machines?
    Incentivise gym users to do more exercise by allowing them a gym discount dependent on their energy contribution!

  5. I am not a real fan of this article. On one hand the idea to make energy out of waves and tides. As far as I know men has been doing that for years already. But never really it gained a lot of attention or really great success (as compared for example to wind energy). I don't really see where the idea's presented here could make it happen. I am far from convinced. And using an expensive word like 'analytics', is not really helping.
    And energy from walking/cycling? How much energy needs your average kitchen appliance? If for heating a kW during some minutes? Something that is cutting 100W during whatever time. As cyclist and engineer I know it is the runner who has to produce it anyway(or carry the weight of the battery device). So the runner will be slower and I now already have a hard time following my friends.
    And for the gym: if all people in the gym would manage to produce the energy the airco and running machines require that would be great.

    It is nice to dream, but let's think a bit more realistic if it comes to energy. We will not help the world too much with waves and cycling. Maybe less energy consumption would be great. So yes for well insulated gyms that don't require expensive air-co and yes for electronic devices that use very few energy. And if my phone can handle with just a little bit of energy it will stay charged long enough so I don't need to worry about how long my after lunch walk needs to be to charge it.


  6. Capturing wind and wave energy are excellent ways of generating electricity, and in future it may be possible to make cost-effective photovoltaic clothes to power phones. Using the kinetic energy of human movement to power personal devices is already proven to work with some brands of wristwatch.

    Parasitic power collection is only useful, however, if the energy that is collected would otherwise be wasted. There are some problems of thermodynamics which would make some of the suggestions non-viable:
    - generating electricity from the kinetic energy of a rotating bicycle wheel will require the cyclist to work harder. To encourage bicycle use it might be better to make cycling easier by fitting bikes with solar-powered electric motors. Further, kitchen appliances typically require huge currents: to generate such currents would be beyond the ability of most cyclists to sustain for any useful time.
    - generating electricity from the kinetic energy of water flowing through your house's pipes will the reduce water pressure in your house; to offset this your water company would need to expend more electricity to pump the water, negating any "free energy" gains and potentially decreasing the general efficiency of the water supply system.

    Nevertheless, please keep inspiring us to think big about making the world a better place, and using renewable energy sources.

    - E Whiting

  7. nice post. Now you can use this importers portal to promote home appliances import & export business.

  8. I don't think this item is convincing. Parasitic- energy collection can be worthwhile, e.g. to brake a car and use this energy again to accelerate. Using biologic entities, such as humans, to generate energy is very inefficient. Just calculate how long a cyclist would need to cycle to generate 1 kWh.
    Charging phone batteries is just a gadget.
    Tidal and wave movements are sources that can generate considerable amounts of energy. But aiming on a floating or submerged device that depends in a crucial way on IT is the wrong direction. You don't want to visit them for software updates or fixing a malfunctioning IT component.

    M. van Sprang

  9. Very interesting post!
    Companies are already working on it! For example in Spain, I know Ennera, a company located in the Basque Country that defends the energy subsistence. If you are interested on it,this is the link (www.ennera.com/en)


  10. Check this link on Pedal Power
    There are 2 parts to this puzzle, efficient conversion of kinetic energy to electricity e.g. pedaling fly wheels and better utilization of electricity using LEDs etc. I think this is one idea whose time has indeed come! :)

  11. Swarnasanka (swarnasanka@gmail.com)December 27, 2011 at 2:27 AM

    I believe this is the great return that we can give to the environment and to the next generation .
    Think, most of the countries use oil and gas to produce energy few using atomic power too.when oil and gas is over what can we do, are we going to fight each other or are we going to use any other natural resource. what ever we do we have to understand all natural resources are depreciating.so i think this will be a best thing that we can practices.This will help your kid to breath well and live peace fully coz we can save and build green environment rather than burning oil or using atomic power to generate energy which has negative impact on environment.
    (carrying a small wight is ok and even if we have to scarify bit of important time from our life or our energy is ok because this will save our world where we have better, green , and unpolluted tomorrow for our self and for our kids )

  12. Interesting article. Not sure if the total potential installed capacity of tidal energy is enough to replace a fair amount of fossil fuels, but the idea is certainly worth stretching as far as possible.

    What I find a fantastic idea - in the broader sense of the word as it does seem quite SF at this moment in time, but then again, so did an I-phone 20 years ago - is a technique that NASA has been researching since the 1970s: Space Based Solar Power (SBSP). It basically means lining up a bunch of satelites with huge solar panels in constant reach of solar rays. The problem of course is getting the energy down to earth, but there seem to be techniques under development to beam it down (?).

    I am hoping that war will not be an accellerator for technology development (as it often has been) but that we find something to replace fossil fuels in relative peace.

    Karel - The Netherlands

  13. parasitic way of generating energy may look viable now while we see the worl at this stage but in coming years human activities will be like walking, gyming and others will minimize as the world is growing so anyways this is great thought to harvest the ebergy from natural resources than parasitic energy collection. Hence we need to have comparitive analysis of the resource at this time part of research may extict at later stage.

  14. I think that is the return of the automatic (or self-winding) wrist watch. As the electronic devices become more efficient, the low power generated by small movements becomes enough.