Harnessing power from the people

Robert Coffan wants to change the way people think about staying in shape.

"I don't really like gyms," Coffan said. "I want to feel like I'm doing something productive and giving back while I'm exercising." If people can work out and give their bodies energy, he told a room of observers Thursday on the Southern Oregon University campus, then why can't they give some energy back?

With that in mind, Coffan and three SOU computer science majors — Austin Reba, Jesse Firestone and Ryan Desmond — unveiled the Bionic Energy Project.

The project is a collaboration of physics, fitness, science and sustainability. It uses human-powered bicycling to generate electricity, which is configured and transferred into the city's energy grid.

Two physics majors, Tyler Fowler and Kim Mann, could not attend the unveiling, but Firestone said the work they put in was essential to the project's success.

"They laid the groundwork," he said.

The team developed a platform that attaches to the rear of just about any type of bicycle. The platform contains a device, which relays data including RPMs and total distance to a small transmitter, named 'David.'

"There's two of them," Firestone said of the transmitters. The other one's much bigger, so we call that one 'Goliath.'"

David passes the information through a computer, which synchronizes the flow of energy with that of the power used for public consumption. It is enough to leave anyone unfamiliar with the science of electricity scratching their heads. But the results are undeniable.

"It's essentially a motor that we turned backwards. Instead of sucking in electricity to run, we generate electricity," Coffan said.

But actually putting power back into the public supply is more complex than just turning a motor in reverse. The energy that is put back into the grid must be consistent with the energy that is already there.

"It's like jumping into a jump rope game," Coffan said. "You can't just jump in and expect it to work, you have watch and make sure you know what you're doing."

Bringing the project to life took months of work. Coffan, an adjunct instructor and the president of Medford-based environmental services provider Katalyst, Inc., started the Bionic Energy Project in July of last year, and the students began signing on in November, as part of their university capstone requirements. The students documented the entire process, and posted their efforts on a Web site, www.bionicenergy.org.

"I'm excited about it," said Jamie Vener, a leadership instructor in the school's Health and Physical Education department. "It represents a potential to improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of obesity-related disorders. It's a new approach that's really unique." Other audience members agreed.

"They did a fine job," said computer science professor Peter Nordquist.

Now that the project has been unveiled, the question that remains is whether their design can be widely produced. If so, the Bionic Energy Project could pioneer a new series of innovation for alternative energy.

"One person might not make much of a difference," Firestone said. "But if you had ten or 20 of these in a gym they could make a serious dent on the power grid."

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