Electricity + Control

By Clement Mokoenene, Epitome Consulting.

The urban life has two seemingly unrelated but predictable certainties, namely high electricity demand and unbearable traffic congestion. 

Electricity is our life blood while traffic seems to exist only to bring a tortuous conception of inconvenience. However, witnessing the landing of an A380 Airbus aeroplane back in 2011, set off an amazing journey that culminated in the discovery of an unlikely but crucial link between traffic and electricity, namely, pressure.

Reviewing the work we have done over the past seven years and analysing the results we have achieved, we cannot help but wonder if this is potentially the ultimate missing link in our own development. Did the invention of the wheel bring with it an artificial energy source, namely, roads? This article examines this question closely and attempts to answer it using empirical evidence from our field work, thus far.

Renewable energy from trafficThe millions of value-chain activities involved in the generation of our base-load electricity, setting-up and running mines and power stations and their associated politics, are all aimed at the sole objective of creating pressure which is then used to drive a turbine and generate electricity. It then begs the question: Is there an easier way of creating pressure? On the other hand, automobiles, owing to their colossal weights and sheer numbers, transfer terrifying quantities of pressure onto the roads. That roads are extensive wells of pressure is nothing new; the Boussinesq Theory and Equation (1885) and the E80’s Axle Loading Calculation Method (also from the early 1800s) reaffirm that roads contain massive pressures and both methods give the basis for calculation of this pressure. Our lives as road engineers are dedicated to the protection of the roads from the devastating effects of these excessive pressures on the roads themselves – if we do a sub-standard job in protecting roads from these pressures, we end up with roads riddled with potholes, ruts, cracks and other failures.

However, it was not until that fateful day in 2011, that my mindset shifted from just protecting the possibilities of harvesting this pressure. This slight change in perspective brought us to the realisation that Roads are the biggest artificial energy source in the world. The first hurdle was to prove that these pressures could be harvested from the road and be transferred to the side of the road where they could do useful work. To do this, we conceived, successfully designed and installed a test overlay layer that successfully harvested these pressures. To validate this, we logged pressure a few metres away from the test overlay layer section. Our results revealed that:

• Passing vehicles literally create pressure explosions/ spikes whenever they travel over the overlay section
• These pressures are proportional to the weight of the vehicles

The next challenge was to get these pressure explosions to do effective work. To convert these pressure explosions into energy, we invented the Traffic Turbine, which is essentially a hybrid between a four-stroke internal combustion engine, a bicycle and a wind turbine. However, the traffic turbine is not driven by combustion but rather by the aforementioned pressure explosions harvested from the road to create reciprocation of the hydraulic cylinders and then the rotation of the central shaft which then drives a generator and generates electricity. The key feature of the system is the central shaft which essentially enables us to install the system parallel to the road for however long a length of road that needs to be harvested to meet a specific power demand. The central shaft gives the system the ability to accumulate individual forces and combine them into one massive output per shaft. We perceive the system as installed in a concrete chamber on the side of and in parallel to the road and with all its workings removed from the public and road users’ eyes.

Successful Model A

As proof of concept, we built Model A (Alpha Prototype) of the system and successfully tested it. We have installed the Model A Prototype at our office and with the successful incorporation of the inverter and a battery we are using it to power the lights at our offices. We are currently running it with a specially designed test truck with a variable load of up to 4 000 kg and are producing a peak electricity of 2,6 kW in a harvest length of 40 cm. This is despite the overall system efficiency of just 0,81% for Model A. We have built a simulation model and used it to design Model B (Beta Prototype) and are currently building Model B with the objective of piloting the system from March 2018 at the already secured pilot site.

Putting this technology in context, about seven in 10 people in sub-Saharan African have no access to electricity. Accounting for about 70% of the entire sub-Saharan electricity, South Africa does not have as big a pain as the other major countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, this solution, though invented and developed in South Africa, may not seem critical in the South African context.

However, if we look at a typical sub-Saharan African city situation which generally has serious problems of electricity coverage and intermittent electricity supply coupled with crippling traffic situation, then there is an over-supply of traffic and an undersupply of electricity. Now this innovation would be a lifeline in such an environment and certainly improve lives dramatically. We believe it is those almost hopeless situations that the true value of this innovation will be realised and can make an immeasurable impact all around.

Why should we care about traffic as a renewable energy source?

For starters we are guaranteed to have it and can predict it with much more confidence than the other renewable energy sources. However, the following are some of the most compelling reasons why traffic makes sense:

• Shorter installation time of up to six months
• No emissions, no pollution; no bi-products, it is a major weapon in combating climate change
• Production mirrors the traffic cycles, which in turn, mirrors power demands. It is a natural fit.
• Once optimised there is massive extraction potential
• It is generated close to the point of use, no need for long transmission lines and their associated losses and costs
• It will use existing spaces, roads, and will not require dedicated large areas for installation
• Design incorporates potential for genuine base-load viability

The frequently asked questions regarding the system are:

• How is the system affected by the Law of Conservation of Energy (LCE)? The system works and gets affected by the LCE in the horizontal plane. However, our results cannot be explained exclusively in terms of the LCE or the other thermodynamics laws. For instance, the pressure spikes that increase with the weight of the vehicle are independent of the LCE but can be explained through equilibrium in the vertical plane. As a result, we see this project as not being a purely mechanical and electrical project but it also fuses some aspects of structural engineering particularly the influence lines theory. It is when we view this project in that context that its potential can be fully appreciated and not dismiss it solely on the basis of horizontal plane energy balance considerations.

• Will it increase the rolling resistance of the vehicles on the roads? Yes it will, and we must also note that all the hills scattered along our roads have exactly the same effect with very little benefit. However, for the trial period we aim to install the system on the road downhills and where vehicles are expected to slow down so that the system could aid the slowing down process. We will use this to gather sufficient data and assess the actual impact on the coefficient of rolling resistance to guide the future installation decisions.

Conclusion

The thousands of tests conducted, and their associated failures and successes, have led us to believe, with confidence, that pressure, which is the most precious commodity in base-load power generation, can now be harvested in its raw form from the roads and we do not have to mine and burn our mineral resources to create it.

We believe that when we eventually achieve better efficiency, through either innovative combinations of existing materials or formulation of new purpose-made materials or both, than the current 0,81% efficiency then this system may prove to be a major breakthrough in power generation.

We move into 2018 with the knowledge that we will definitely face more challenges than we did in 2017, but we have no doubt that if we keep our problem-solving network expanding quicker than the challenges we face we will certainly stay a step or two ahead. When we achieve that, we will reach our goal of commercialising this ambitious system by the end of 2018.

Could roads be the major missing humming bird effect from the invention of the wheel? We believe so and our empirical research provides irrefutable incremental evidence that this is the case.

For centuries, we have spent trillions destroying this planet, but with a change of perspective we have a shot at saving our trillions and our beloved planet.

 
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