When we heard about a new glow in the dark bike path in Poland which is charged by the sun and then emits light at night, it got us thinking about the innovative ways that technology is being used to help cyclists; particularly where renewable energy is being used to enhance infrastructure for everyday cycling. But, as well as enhancing the day to day experience of cyclists, renewable energy technology is also increasingly being used on bike paths and walking routes to ‘harvest’ sustainable energy for other uses. In this blog we have a look at some of the ideas being developed or implemented which bring together cycling, energy use, and technology and think about what they could mean for everyday cycling in the future.
Glow in the dark bike paths
Top image: the glow in the dark bike path in Lidzbark Warminski, Poland (image kindly provided by Martis Consulting) was partly inspired by...
Bottom two images: the Van Gogh Path, the Netherlands (images kindly provided by Studio Roosegaarde)
Glow in the dark bike paths which are powered by the sun have been appearing in a few different countries over the past few years, including the UK, the Netherlands, Australia and Poland. As well as looking really cool, these paths serve an important purpose: providing light for nighttime riding in locations where it would often not otherwise be provided, in places of particular environmentally sensitivity, or where funding for a conventional lighting system could not be justified. The surface of the paths incorporate luminophores - inorganic materials which absorb light and then glow at night. As light is emitted from the path itself rather than being projected onto it from the sides or above, it can actually work better for cyclists than standard lighting systems, as the edges of the path are really distinct and the overall light level is much more even along the cycle route. The gentle glow of the system also looks much nicer than most alternatives - something which was particularly obvious when artist Daan Roosegaarde created a beautiful interpretation of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ along the Van Gogh cycle path in the Netherlands (see image below).
The Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path not only looks stunning but clearly delineates the edges of the bike path for a safer, easier nighttime ride (image courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde)
As glow in the dark bike paths are powered by the sun, they also benefit from having no running costs and are cheaper to install than conventional lighting systems. At the moment there seems to be an upper limit on the amount of time they will give out light for, which might not stretch through to the AM commute in the depths of winter in countries like the UK where daylight is limited. However, it’s still really cool that you can light up a bike path with just power from the sun, and we hope that in future the technology could be developed to extend the length of time that these glow in the dark paths give out light.
Heated bike paths
In the Netherlands, the sun’s energy has been used to heat as well as light up bike paths. In Wageningen, a pilot scheme uses geothermal energy to stop the surface of a bike path from freezing; the system is then ‘topped up’ with solar energy from a photovoltaic cell (which also powers the system's pump, regulator and temperature sensors). To date, this technology has only been installed in this one place, and sadly because it has quite high installation costs (more than twice the cost of a regular Dutch cycle path) it is unlikely to be implemented on a wide scale anytime soon. Instead, it is thought that it could be most valuable as a solution to clearing snow and ice in locations which are inaccessible by snow-plough or gritter/salting machines. However, aside from the cost of installation, the system does have many benefits over alternatives - it is carbon neutral and better in terms of energy use, labour intensity and environmental impact than salting or ploughing. We would love to see this tech being installed more widely (although for many of us in the UK, getting any kind of snow clearance on bike routes would be a welcome start!).
Energy generation from bike paths
Top image: the SolaRoad bike path in Krommenie; bottom left image: the solar cells underneath tempered glass; bottom right image: the pilot technology in situ (images courtesy of SolaRoad)
And now back to the Netherlands for yet another example from those innovative Dutch thinkers... there is a bit of a theme here so far! Dutch company Solaroad has developed a road surface which generates renewable energy via solar panels which have been integrated into the surface of the road. A pilot system has been in place along a bike path in Krommenie since 2014 and, although the technology is still at an early stage of development, it is hoped that in future it could be much more widely adopted (including on roads carrying heavy vehicles as well as on bike paths) - in fact many commentators have suggested that solar roads (as part of a ‘smart highway system’) are the roads of the future. In order for this to become a reality, it is likely that the system will need to reach a point where it is sufficiently durable and generates enough energy to be cheaper to install than a conventional road surface. If it did reach this stage, it would provide a sustainable, local source of reliable (albeit relatively seasonal) energy.
Top image: Pavegen tiles installed along the walkway from West Ham Station to the Olympic Stadium for the London 2012 Olympics; bottom left image: Heathrow Airport; bottom right image: a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (images kindly provided by Pavegen)
And now back to more familiar shores, where in the UK, the start-up company Pavegen has developed a very interesting product: floor tiles which harvest energy as people walk over them. The tiles are slightly flexy and, as people walk over them, the kinetic energy generated is captured and converted into electricity. This technology was installed on a walkway from West Ham underground station (one of the key stations serving the Olympic Park) prior to the 2012 London Olympics and generated enough energy to power lights at the station for several hours every night whilst the Olympics were underway. It has also been installed in various other locations including Heathrow Airport and a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (see images above). If this technology could be adapted to capture the energy of a bike passing over it, it could provide another means of generating renewable energy from cycle infrastructure - we would love to see 'tyre harvesting' make cycling an even greener mode of transport.
On the bike energy generation
Left image: the Leaos Solar electric bike (image courtesy of Leaos); right image: A front light and small electronic device charger (seen mounted on the top tube) powered by a hub dynamo
(image: "My dream bike - Dynamo hub powered light" by Gavin Anderson, licensed under CC BY 2.0)
On the bike energy generation has received a lot of attention of late, mostly in relation to electric bikes, as engineers and inventors try to create the ultimate in sustainable urban transport: the self-powering electric bike. On the bike energy generation has been a reality for about as long as bicycles themselves have been around - dynamo lights powered by the movement of the wheel were around as early as the end of the nineteenth century. Dynamo generation has come on a fair way since then and there are now a range of systems available which enable you to use a front dynamo hub to charge small devices as well as (or instead of) your bike lights (as shown in the right-hand image above). More recently, portable solar panels targeted at touring cyclists have been made (including one design which rolls up when not in use).
In terms of energy generation on electric bikes, regenerative braking (where braking is done via the electric motor rather than the ‘manual’ brakes and some of the energy from braking is returned to the battery) is an established system which is used on some on the market electric bikes, as well as other vehicles such as electric and hybrid cars. However, the recapture of energy from this system is fairly minimal when it is installed on electric bikes, typically extending the range of a single battery charge only a relatively minor amount.
The holy grail for designers working on electric bikes however, is the 'self-sufficient' electric bike. A number of designs which use solar panels to charge the bike’s battery have been developed, but at present the average daily range you can get from typical charging conditions is still relatively modest. For example, the Leaos Solar bike (which is the only solar-powered electric bike we have come across that is on the market already rather than just being at prototype stage) has an average daily range of about nine miles when charged exclusively using the solar panels (it can also be plugged in and charged like any other electric bike).
The concept of a fully solar powered electric bike is a really exciting one - the idea of having an electric bike which is ‘self-sufficient’ in its energy generation and uses only renewable energy from the sun is certainly compelling. It seems there is still some way to go until the technology could reliably provide enough energy to power you for longer distances, although if your daily mileage is relatively modest you really could travel fully solar powered using the Leaos Solar bike. For now, the design used by Leaos (which allows you to charge the bike through both the integrated solar panels and the conventional plug-in method) seems like a sensible middle ground. However, with a price tag which is several thousand pounds, the Leaos Solar isn't cheap - although it is still considerably cheaper than an electric car.
On the bike water generation
The Fontus Ryde harvests fresh water from the air (images courtesy of Fontus)
One final thing we must mention in relation to on the bike generation is the Fontus Ryde. This doesn’t generate or capture energy but it does capture another important natural resource: water. Dubbed as a ‘self-filling water bottle’, the Fontus Ryde allows you to ‘harvest’ water from the air - it does this by taking in hot, humid air and then extracting the water from it by cooling and condensing it (the coolers are solar powered). The system is capable of capturing up to half a litre of water per hour in optimal conditions (high temperature and high humidity).
The system has many benefits for cyclists (it can enable you to carry less water on the bike and not need to rely so much on en-route water sources for a start) but it was also designed with a higher purpose in mind. Around a third of the world’s population lives in areas where water scarcity is an issue (and this is expected to become an even bigger issue in future), so a self-sufficient device for harvesting freshwater from the air could have a massive impact on global water security and on people’s lives around the world.
The award-winning design is due to be available to buy from the spring of next year, following a crowdfunding campaign and funding from the Austrian government to assist in the technical development phase. For more information on the development of the Fontus Ryde, check out the crowdfunding video which led to the campaign being funded more than 1000%.