Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Children become latest source of renewable energy

Have you ever watched little kids playing on a playground and thought: “If only I could harness their energy?” That’s precisely what a group of green-minded U.S. inventors have done by transforming playground equipment into systems that generate electricity.

According to Karen Cavanagh, CEO of Saber Technical, the New York-based designer and manufacturer of the electrical generating playground systems, the equipment is fitted with alternators and gears which, when activated, are able to generate an electrical charge.

If the children are spinning a merry-go-round that’s intended to pump well water, the spinning motion of the machine will send power into an alternator which then transfers an electric current directly to a sump pump. From there the sump pump pushes the water through underground pipes into a holding tank, which is mounted on top of a tower. The clean water can then be used for drinking, for sanitation purposes or for irrigating arid land.

The “kid made” electricity can also be stored in cells and backed up by solar powered generators which can then be tapped for interior and exterior lighting.

But how are the children taking to the high tech equipment?

“It’s kids,” says John Mason, one of Saber Tech’s founders. “They run fast enough they get the (generator) lights to flash. It gives them a visual reward.”

While several private schools in the U.S. are currently utilizing the Saber Tech donated “kid power playgrounds” to energize their facilities, sister projects are planned for India, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and possibly Afghanistan.

One project that’s slated for a school in Tanzania will literally change the lives of the 600-plus children who attend it. Presently the students of the Sinai School in Babati are forced to walk two miles everyday to access clean drinking water. They also conduct their studies in powerless classrooms that double as storerooms. After their new playground system is constructed, the children will not only enjoy pumped in clean drinking water, they’ll have enough stored electricity to power up their classrooms.

“They haven’t got running water at the school,” explains Clive Shiret of the Livingstone Tanzania Trust, a relief organization. “They haven’t got any sanitary facilities. So this will enable us to do some great work with making the whole place more hygienic and basically extending the kids’ lives.”

According to one teacher from the Woodland Hills Montessori School in upstate New York, where an electrical generating playground is already in operation, it’s all about the basics: “We’re trying to get the children involved in the project, and where do you start but with the fundamental needs. You start with water because it’s a basic component of life.”

But should the Parent Teacher Association start looking at the world's kids like caged hamsters running inside a power-generating hamster wheel?

“It’s all about bottling their energy,” says a cautious Cavanagh. “But most of all I want these kids to know that it is their energy that will solve problems. The system they play on every single day is the same system that the same type of kids use across the globe.”

Parents seem to be in agreement, says Kris Gernert-Dott, mother of 5th and 7th grade students at the Montessori School: “Through this water and energy project ... my daughters have been moved to think of ways they can help make the world a better place.”

Of course, like any benign energy producing project there always remains the risk of free-market exploitation. But in the case of supervised kid-generated playgrounds, such a possibility seems highly unlikely. One New York building contractor, David Canfield, who worked on assembling the Montessori playground, said: “This is an opportunity for kids all over the globe to share something in common. The playground works on many levels including scientific, ecological and cultural. Of course if somebody starts using kids and playgrounds to mine diamonds that would be all wrong.”

But what’s good about kid-powered playgrounds is that they not only provide access to human basics like water and electric light, they are able to bridge the world’s cultural gap.
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