UCL student envisages office of the future

18 March 2010

Office workers on a spiral staircase

Could walking up and down a flight of stairs or rocking on a chair provide some of the power for the office of the future?

That's the intriguing question at the heart of a research project investigating whether everyday workplace activities carried out by human beings could be harnessed and converted into useful electrical energy.

PhD student Julius Partridge is exploring the idea of what he calls the 'human office' as part of his Engineering Doctorate research project, which is cross-departmental and supervised by Dr Richard Bucknall in UCL Mechanical Engineering.

UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering are investing £100,000 in his four-year project thanks to funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and industrial partner Battle McCarthy.

The company specialises in delivering sustainable engineering solutions for the built environment and Partridge is working under the supervision of John Ducke, head of the firm's electrical department, to apply some of his ideas to real-world scenarios.

He is investigating how human energy could be reclaimed through the use of special collectors on doors and piezo-electric materials underfoot, which generate electricity in response to applied mechanical stress.

Partridge, who is based at the UCL Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, is focusing his research on two broad areas:

  • understanding how energy is used in the context of the office and the built environment and how its occupants might contribute to that demand.
  • intelligent energy-saving methods such as optimising lighting and heating, more efficient use of office machines, and encouraging people to walk between floors instead of taking the lift, etc.

He said: "Workplaces are largely rooms with people and machines. While energy is used to heat and light rooms and run the vast array of machines (photocopier, computers, etc), people will also expend energy in offices rocking backwards and forwards on chairs, opening doors, walking around and up and down stairs, etc.

"In the context of an individual within the workplace, the human energy expended is small; however, when you consider larger premises like headquarter buildings, hospitals or university campuses with higher population densities engaged in all kinds of different activities and constantly moving around, the total energy expended by human activity can be significant. In essence this project considers the human body as a chemical battery from which electrical energy can be scavenged when that body carries out mechanical work."

For more information about UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering or the UCL Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience follow the links above.

Image: office workers on a spiral staircase


UCL context

In 2008 UCL won funding for seven new centres for doctoral training (CDTs). In addition, UCL's doctoral centre at the Life Sciences Interface – CoMPLEX – was also renewed. This gives UCL a total of nine CDTs created to ‘generate the scientists needed for Britain's future’. Each centre receives around £6m in funding to pay for a total of nearly 400 students to take part in four-year doctorate programmes over five years.

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