Thinking Tech

California highways may soon produce their own power

Posting in Energy

An official has proposed a bill to retrofit some of the state's highways with a technology that captures and converts the energy from moving cars into electricity.

For many people, the sight of Los Angeles freeways during rush hour is a striking reminder of how rampant our fuel consuming ways have become. But one elected state official sees the waves of congestion and traffic instead as an opportunity to produce energy.

Last week, California state assemblyman Mike Gatto, proposed a bill to retrofit some of the state's highways with a technology that captures the ambient energy generated by moving cars and converts it into electricity. The idea came about during a conversation with one of his friends who, upon returning from a trip to Israel, informed him about the useful ways the technology was being implemented there.

"My friend said, 'The coolest thing I saw was a road that generates power. I couldn't believe it at first,'" Gatto told the North County Times. "And then I said, 'This is something that we absolutely have to get in California.'"

The technology is based on a principle called the piezoelectric effect, in which certain materials have the ability to build up an electrical charge from having pressure and strain applied to them. Sensors made from the materials are installed a few inches beneath the road surface to absorb vehicle-generated vibrations. The harvested energy is converted into electricity and transferred to a battery on the side of the road.

Although Gatto hasn't provided an estimate for much such a project would cost taxpayers, the sensors are considered to be relatively inexpensive and he believes that in the long run, the project will actually be profitable.

"Caltrans could sell the power to local businesses and use the proceeds for other piezoelectric retrofitting, or simply for much-needed repairs to regular roads,”  Assemblyman Gatto said in a statement posted on his website. “These projects would quite literally pay for themselves, and will be a significant source of ‘green sector,’ private-sector jobs.”

When the technology was put to the test in 2009, the Israeli government was able to generate 2,000 watt-hours of electricity simply by implementing the system on a 10-meter stretch of highway. Italy and Ireland have also looked into incorporating the technology onto their roadways.

“A major source of renewable energy is right beneath our feet — or, more accurately, our tires," said Gatto. "California is the car capitol of the world. It only makes sense to convert to electricity the energy lost as cars travel over our roads.”

Here's a video that demonstrates how piezoelectric sensors work:

Photo: StockXchng

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure