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How One Company Is Turning Footsteps Into Renewable Power

Pavegen tiles turn footsteps into renewable power in some of the world's busiest places, from airports to festivals.

Written by
Ben Korn

Every month, more than two million passengers travel through the Abu Dhabi International Airport, rushing to catch their flight or make a connection. As those passengers walk between the two airport terminals, they're benefiting the planet in a very unexpected way.

Underfoot are tiles created by a UK-based company called Pavegen, and the weight of each footstep is used to generate clean, renewable energy.

How Pavegen Came to Be

Laurence Kemball-Cook, founder and CEO of Pavegen, was researching sustainable energy solutions and studying design when he was a student at Loughborough University in England in 2009. He noticed traditional renewable energy sources—like wind turbines and solar panels—weren't always best suited for dense urban environments. At the same time, he was commuting through Victoria Station—one of the busiest transportation hubs in the UK.

You probably know exactly where this is going. As Kemball-Cook was walking alongside the estimated 75 million passengers who use the station each year, he realized there might be a way to harness the kinetic energy of their footsteps. The first prototype was made in just 15 hours.

"I just hacked it together. There was wood in it, and it was held together by duct tape," he told Wired. "I went to 150 venture capitalists, and they all said no. The government said, 'It would never work, we can’t help you.'"

It's safe to say they had it all wrong. Since then, Pavegen tiles have proved to be an innovative new way to generate renewable energy.

How Pavegen Tiles Work

As pedestrians walk across the tiles, the weight from their footsteps compress the surface by about five millimeters. This puts pressure on electromagnetic generators that are stored below the tiles.

While the first version was a rectangular tile and only generated electricity when pedestrians stepped directly on the center, newer versions are triangular-shaped with generators at each corner. Because of that, no matter where the step is placed, electricity is generated. 

Each step generates about five watts of energy—enough to power a night light. The electricity generated from one step might sound tiny, but Pavegen’s ingenuity is being able to harness energy from the masses. When deployed in high-trafficked areas—like shopping malls, airports, public parks, and concert venues—the energy created from thousands of people’s collective steps can be substantial.

Case in point? When the company installed tiles in West Ham station in London ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the crowd's footsteps generated enough electricity to charge 10,000 mobile phones for an hour. Yep, pretty impressive.

Where to Find Pavegen Tiles

When you come across Pavegen tiles, you can tap into the company's app—Pavegen GO—which connects pedestrians with real-time information about their steps. Using Bluetooth, the app measures your contributions to producing clean energy and will even reward you for your steps with discounts at partner retailers or a donation to a charity.

If you're eager to see the springy tiles in action, there are currently 250 installations in 36 countries. That includes Dupont Circle in Washington, DC; SXSW in Austin, Texas; and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. And we have a feeling that's just the beginning.