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Friday, May 14, 2021

Pedaling for a purpose

 The Smart Art Fitness elliptical machine, on loan from Bellingham Fitness Gear and Training, in the Wade King Student Recreation Center. The machine draws enough power from the person using it to exercise that it powers itself. // Photo by Christina Becker

The Smart Art Fitness elliptical machine, on loan from Bellingham Fitness Gear and Training, in the Wade King Student Recreation Center. The machine draws enough power from the person using it to exercise that it powers itself. // Photo by Christina Becker

The second floor of the Wade King Student Recreation Center is a place that’s all about expending energy. But Sean Petersmark, junior and business and sustainability major, recognized the cardio area also has massive potential for energy generation.

This spring, Petersmark and two other classmates are competing for the $300,000 set aside each year to fund sustainability projects on campus through Western’s Green Energy Fee Grant Program.

This would be enough to fund new cardio machines capable of producing enough energy to sustain themselves.

“I looked around [the rec center] and saw that it was a lot of people working out on all of these machines and it’s cardio heaven up there,” Petersmark said. “I just thought to myself, ‘that’s a lot of energy being used and a lot of kinetic energy not being harnessed.’”

Petersmark, along with sophomore Kate Thompson and senior Drew Swisher, now have a power-generating elliptical machine on loan from Bellingham Fitness Gear and Training that students are free to try in the rec center.

The monitors of the Technogym brand machines Petersmark and his teammates rented display the power someone generates in terms of how many electrical appliances their workout could have powered. For example, the number of watts produced as someone exercises would be measured in number of lightbulbs that could be illuminated.

The team is pushing for four new bikes if they receive the grant: two standard bikes and two reclining bikes.

The process started nearly a year ago when Petersmark participated in the GEF program’s idea lab. At first, he was discouraged.

“I went to the idea lab nervous and excited but kind of got shot down, because they said this idea has already been tried and presented,” Petersmark said.

Petersmark continued to research other universities that had done similar projects and saw two different potential systems: micro-inverter technology and node technology.

Micro-inverter technology involves pumping power from cardio machines back into the power grid, a system used at other universities, Petersmark said. The elliptical currently on loan in the rec center uses this technology.

However, campus electrical engineers have expressed reservations about trying to use micro-inverter systems due to concerns with the grid’s ability to handle surges of power at peak gym use times, said fitness coordinator at the rec center, Ron Arnold.

Due to worries that the engineers wouldn’t allow the power-generating machines to be used on a large scale in the rec center, the team moved on to looking at systems using node technology.

The difference would mean a cardio machine runs its monitors and television screen with the power generated by the user. It takes an initial pulse of energy from the grid to start, and then becomes a self-sustaining closed circuit.

Arnold has been working in coordination with Petersmark and his team to analyze the logistics of implementing these systems in the cardio area.

Arnold made the point that some of the spin bikes and elliptical machines don’t use power now, meaning some machines require energy to move components in the machine and some don’t. The biggest electricity consumers are the treadmills.

Arnold said he agreed with the message Petersmark hopes to send with this project.

If their application is accepted, Petersmark said he hopes to have four bikes installed, and as the old machines break he hopes the university replaces them with power-generating models.

“It will show a student, after they’ve worked out for an hour and sweated their butt off, they’ve only produced [enough energy to power] two light bulbs,” Petersmark said.

The team said they hope this will cultivate a new appreciation for energy consumption.

“We don’t get paid, we don’t get credits for this, but it’s something that we want to see here on campus,” Petersmark said. “In the grand scheme of things in the facility, these four machines won’t really reduce that much in terms of emissions, but the main point of this project is to give students that first-hand relative perspective about how much it takes to produce the energy we use.”

The team is in the process of finalizing the application and accepted GEF grant projects will be announced Tuesday, May 26.


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