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"Piezoelectric Applications on Highways and Beyond"


At The Ray, we are always looking for solutions that will make our highways smarter, safer, or more sustainable. One technology, piezoelectricity, has promising applications for all three goals. Piezoelectricity literally means “pressing electricity.” It is the electric energy produced by applying mechanical stress on certain crystals, ceramics, biological matter, and proteins. The creation of piezoelectricity is already established in commonly used items. It powers our quartz watches, it lights gas grills and stoves, and it is used to transmit sound waves during an ultrasound. Piezoelectricity has dozens of applications that are still being discovered – someday it could be an alternative renewable energy source as well as a vast source of data to make our highways safer and smarter.

Down the Road: Piezoelectricity as an Alternative Renewable Energy Source

Piezoelectricity creates energy from pressure against a surface. One example used right here in Georgia uses the pressure of feet against carpet to create energy. At Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, human motion powers a photo station to capture selfies of users. This piezoelectric application dubbed the “People Powered Photo Station” is being used to promote sustainable energy harvesting as a part of GreeningAtlanta, an organization committed to creating sustainable solutions in the Atlanta airport. The photo station works much like a typical photo booth. You take a picture and immediately get a digital copy; the only difference is the picture is powered by your feet. The Kennedy Space Center has also turned the creation of piezoelectricity into a game. Visitors can play “launch the rocket” by stepping on piezoelectric tiles that produce energy. The Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Kennedy Space Visitor Complex partnered to create this game to educate people about alternative energy sources. Piezoelectricity is being tested all around the world. In Rotterdam, Netherlands, a club’s lights and DJ booth are powered by the pressure of feet against the dance floor. From interactive games to dance floors, people are discovering new ways to innovate with piezoelectricity every day!

Studio Roosegaarde in Rotterdam, Netherlands can produce up to 25 watts per square module on their piezoelectric dance floor.

But does what works for these small scale pilots scale up to the roadway? Using vibrations from cars and trucks on roads, piezoelectricity has the potential to create an average of 90kW on one kilometer of road which is enough to power an electric vehicle for 280 miles. In 2009, Innowatech, an Israeli startup working on harvesting piezoelectric energy, installed piezoelectric generators 6 cm under the road to test its capabilities. Although the pilot created some energy, energy generation fell short of the expectations, and the application was determined to be unscalable at the time of the pilot. California has also attempted to build piezoelectric highways. In 2017, California state officials announced their plan to fund a piezoelectric stretch of road. Although no updates have been made for this project, piezoelectric applications continue to grow across the country and around the world. Piezoelectricity is still in its beginning stages of development for energy generation and definitely something to keep an eye on going forward.

Unlocking Data: Piezoelectricity To Improve Safety on Highways and Beyond

Piezoelectricity is more than just a renewable energy source; it can tell us a lot of data too. One way that piezoelectricity has been used for data is through a yoga mat called SmartMat. With 21,000 piezoelectric sensors, SmartMat can tell you when you’ve hit the right position or when you need improvement. It can track your alignment and balance, and it coaches you through a yoga pose. Other potential applications for piezoelectricity as a data collector include

  • Sensors on nursing home floors that can sense when an elderly person falls 
  • Sensors tracking the weight and gait of a person for airport security
  • Sensors that track soldier’s physical fitness before combat

The SmartMat covered by CNBC at its debut at CES 2015.

Data collected from piezoelectricity also has the potential to save lives on the roads. Piezoelectric sensors can tell a driver traffic conditions, automobile conditions, and weather conditions in real time. This technology to make roads smarter already exists – it just needs to be implemented on a wide scale.

Renewable energy and big data are two big players on the road to zero emissions, zero death and zero waste on highways. Have you heard of an idea that you think we should feature next? Today’s blog was inspired by a reader like you. Go to our Suggest a Tech portal to be featured next on our blog.