LOS ANGELES, CA - If you're a Los Angeles native, resident or even visitor, you will probably cringe at the combination of "LA" and "rush hour." Sitting in LA traffic is an excruciatingly painful task, and not just because of the hours you spend putting pressure on your lower back. If your brakes aren't screeching because of the driver who just cut you off, then you're probably yelling about the bumper-to-bumper deadlock.
Truth be told, traffic is infuriating, exhausting and unproductive. However, the California Energy Commission (CEC) has announced its plans to change the latter of the three.
In a new pilot program, the CEC invested $2 million to study whether or not piezoelectric crystals, which would be installed under the asphalt, can be used to turn some of the most congested freeways in the country into a useful alternative resource.
To rewind just a little bit, piezoelectric technology, though it may sound foreign, is not new. Piezoelectricity ("pressing electricity") was first discovered in the 19th century, says ZME Science. Since then, it has been used in various common objects such as electric guitars, sonar and even microphones. For instance, when you talk to your loved ones on your laptop, your voice is converted into electrical signals with piezoelectric technology, which your computer then processes. Essentially, a vibration goes in and an electric pulse comes out.
Now take this concept and try to apply on a larger scale. On the freeway, you're already generating huge amounts of energy, but much of it is lost to heat and friction. ZME Science explains, "The energy exchanged with the road by friction isn't enormous but if you can capture just a fraction of it and turn it into reusable electricity, the savings could be huge." As your vehicle (slowly but surely) rolls over highways embedded with these crystals, an electrical current is created from the mechanical stress, which can then be harvested to energize the grid.
"It's not hard to see the opportunity in California," Mike Gravely, the CEC's deputy division chief of energy research and development, said in a statement. "It's an energy that's created but is just currently lost in vibration."
This kind of technology is already used in other parts of the world. In Tokyo, the East Japan Railway Company uses piezoelectric flooring in its railway station. The kinetic energy generated by passing pedestrians is used to power ticket gates and display systems. And in 2009, the first piezoelectric freeway opened in Israel. The country's coastal road Route 4 consists of a 10-meter strip of asphalt that covers the piezoelectric generators underneath. The 2,000 watt-hours of energy collected are then stored in nearby batteries.
According to Assemblyman Mike Gatto, California's plans are similar to those of Israel's Route 4. "You would embed them about 10 inches down," Gatto told Pasadena Star News. "If you've ever stood in a parking garage at a mall you can feel all of that vibration. Well, these transducers would gather that energy and it would be collected at a central source."
In fact, ZME Science says that scientists estimate the energy generated from a 10-mile stretch of four-lane roadway can power the entire city of Burbank, which has a population of about 105,000.
Right now, the program's schedule, including when the ground will be broken, has not been revealed. However, the long-term goal is to produce 50 percent of California electricity with renewable energy by 2030, according to Associated Press. While this sounds like a giant leap in the right direction, Joe Mahoney, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, points out that these highways would need to be resurfaced every 10 to 30 years. So as much as the newly funded study is about trying to figure out how the technology will work, it will also be about whether or not the investment will be worth it in the long run.
Regardless, Gatto does have a point when he says, "Thirty years ago, no one would have believed that black silicon panels in the desert could generate 'solar' power. Piezoelectric technology is real, and I am glad the state has finally acknowledged its potential in becoming an energy source."
Edited by Angelica Pronto.