Wheels of change

Human energy powers motion and innovation

Photo of people riding bicycles

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 machine.

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 studies 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 powered.

“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 Portland 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 exhibit.

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.”