Roadside energy harvesting is a technique that allows power to be generated by things people are already doing.

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The key to unlocking new energy sources is to find ways to combine numerous sources to work for us, reducing and eventually replacing our reliance on fossil fuels.

To that end, scientists have been working on a number of ways to generate electricity that doesn’t pollute. Wind and solar energy get the most press, but kinetic energy, created by human movement, has a lot of potential as well.

This is where University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers, led by Xudong Wang, come in. They’re developing a system called a triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG), which utilizes the principles behind static electricity to generate power.

What they’ve struck on is, surprisingly, flooring. They’ve found that by making layers of wood pulp into nanofibers, they can generate electricity from the action of people walking over specially created flooring material.

This is the latest development in a research field called roadside energy harvesting, which could rival solar power in some areas because it doesn’t depend on sunny weather to function.

“Roadside energy harvesting requires thinking about the places where there is abundant energy we could be harvesting,” says Wang. “We’ve been working a lot on harvesting energy from human activities. One way is to build something to put on people, and another way is to build something that has constant access to people. The ground is the most-used place.”

The TENG flooring consists mostly of wood pulp, which is a common and sustainable byproduct of many industries. This means it is cheap enough to use as a flooring material, especially in large, well-trafficked areas like stadiums or malls. By making use of such flooring in these areas, could generate a significant amount of electricity, taking a considerable burden off of fossil fuels.

This roadside energy harvesting project is still pretty early in its development, and the researchers need to work out a number of details. However, Wang and his team are confident that they can create structures that would be able to generate electricity longer than they would likely function as floors.

The researchers are working on creating a sample area on the UW-Madison campus that can illustrate the principle and help them to further develop the TENG system. It’s research like this which will not only help to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but will help to motivate future research into even more interesting alternatives.