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At long last, scientific researchers in Tokyo are looking into the city’s greatest surplus — pedestrians. Panels installed at Tokyo station and in Shibuya have started to generate electricity from human steps, enough energy in its research phase to illuminate Christmas lights and display boards. These electricity-generating panels are the first “step,” so to speak, toward the harnessing of a safe, clean and renewable resource — people walking.

That sounds nice, but will it work? Initial tests in 2006 were relatively successful, and the new panels are said to be greatly improved in efficiency and output. The panels generate roughly 0.5 watt when an average-size person steps on them twice. The wattage produced in Tokyo station’s test area will be enough to light a 100-watt bulb for about 80 minutes per day. The station hopes to use this wattage to power nearby electronic displays and possibly ticket gates.

That may not seem like much, but the numbers add up quickly. In Tokyo station, seven ticket gates have been fitted with panels where 80,000 people pass every day. In Shibuya’s Hachiko square, where four test panels have been installed, 700,000 people pass by daily. Not all of those people yet drop all their body energy exactly on those four little squares, but Tokyo station has 1.8 million commuters and Shibuya 2.4 million per day. Talk about a group effort! The potential is enormous.

Whether these test panels can finally be made efficient and whether the energy can be realized are not yet clear. However, the science of these piezo-electric cells, as they are called, is already being applied to some inkjet printers, cigar lighters and computer keyboards. Japan has long prided itself on such innovative, if quirky, uses of technology to everyday life. It is only a matter of increasing the scale.

The can-do spirit behind the project should be applauded. The future of energy will need a lot more thinking outside the box. From this fresh perspective, it is startling to think how much usable energy from walkers, joggers and commuters is actually wasted every single day! In the near future, maybe, the end of a weary day will at least bring the awareness that one has contributed safe, clean and healthy energy with every single step.

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