Wheels of change

Wheels of change

Human energy powers motion and innovation

Cal State L.A. faculty and students are powering projects
to help people around the world by refashioning how we use bicycles.

Art/Fashion and Textiles faculty Carole Frances Lung, with the assistance of undergraduate mechanical
engineering students working under the direction of faculty Samuel Landsberger, demonstrated
how a bicycle can be a tool in garment production. Lung asked people to
participate in the creative process by providing the power to run a sewing

Meanwhile, engineering and communication students—again
under the direction of Mechanical Engineering and
Kinesiology Professor Landsberger—designed a bicycle that charges cell phones, runs radios and powers
small electronics, while still maneuvering city streets.

Both of these projects, students and faculty say, are part
of an exciting new wave in environmental innovation, where everyday machines and
tools are repurposed to perform more than one task. They also help to directly
connect people to the energy they use—in this case, the power required to run a
sewing machine or cell phone.

“The students appreciate this type of design work, where
they are building something to not only use in class, but around the country and
even around the world,” Landsberger said.

For instance, the pedal-powered cell phone charger was
designed specifically for the people of Burundi, where bicycles and cell phones
are prevalent, but electricity sources are not. By attaching a small generator
and a 12-volt battery to a standard road bike, a team of three engineering and
communications students designed a system that captures the energy that is
created as the bicycle wheels turn. That energy—collected whether the bike is
stationary or moving—charges a battery, which, in turn, charges a cell phone or
other small electronics.

“This was a great opportunity for us to work together,”
said the students’ client, George Makinto, director of Amahoro International, a
nonprofit organization geared toward improving the lives of young people in
Africa. “It was fascinating for me to see how someone can take a piece of
metal and make a cell phone charger out of it. That is something that is
completely out of my expertise.”

In one demonstration, communication
major and
student project leader Kianti Murphy had one user with a robotic prosthetic knee
plug into the bike’s battery and exercise, keeping the battery full and his knee

“It’s really awesome to think—and see—how this machine can
change peoples’ lives,” Murphy said, adding that he hopes to be able to visit
Burundi to demonstrate and teach about the prototype bicycle.

“This project has sparked a flame in me. I have been really
consumed by it,” he added.

Following that thread, Assistant Professor Lung says she is
very motivated to share her pedal-powered sewing machine with others. One
machine (composed of two bicycles joined together by a mechanical gear and a
sewing machine) was already on display at
The Museum of Contemporary Craft in
this spring.

The bike was part of the
“Gestures of Resistance: Craft,
Performance and Slowness”
exhibit and was put to the test on the streets of
Portland for a week during the exhibition. Lung’s goal was to garner enough
power from people she met on the street to knock off one Columbia sports jacket
a day for five days. Unlike the pedal-powered cell phone charger, however, there
was no battery or storage unit for the power. Lung operated the sewing machine
as people pedaled; she would say “power on” and “power off” when she needed to
start and stop.

“This is a direct connection between bicyclists, the sewing
machine and me,” Lung said. “I am fascinated by the idea of using the human body
to power things.”

This fall, Lung will exhibit the bicycle-powered sewing
machine in Los Angeles at the “Make: Craft” exhibit at the
Otis College of Art
and Design
. CSULA engineering students are working on building the bike for that

As for the path ahead, Lung notes, “It’s important to
create collaborations among colleges and people who have specialized skills that
I don’t have. … (That) helps the projects to become a reality.”