Mar 272010
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A summer-time joy ride inspired college students to develop a new method for capturing energy lost while driving a car

One carefree summer day in California, a few college students went for a joy ride. It was the perfect day to don the shades, roll down the windows, and crank up the tunes.

But then someone noticed all the bumps in the road. These were engineering students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the group got to thinking: Isn’t there energy in that?

So they rigged up a bunch of small sensors. They strapped them onto rental cars and took them for a spin. Sure enough, they found that just by bouncing over potholes and bumps, the cars were losing considerable energy through their shock absorbers. To minimize the bouncing, they compress air or liquids, which generates heat.

Zack Anderson and Shakeel Avadhany were in those cars. Two and half years later, they’re MIT graduates with a company built around the idea of bouncy cars. Levant Power builds a gadget called GenShock, a shock absorber that doesn’t dissipate the energy from a rocky ride but retains it.

GenShock isn’t a “breakthrough” in the colloquial sense. It doesn’t eliminate fossil fuels or shatter the price levels of other clean technologies. In fact, their tests show that depending on the type of vehicle and the way it’s driven, gas savings will range between 1 and 6 percent.

But spread that device across millions of jittering vehicles, and the numbers become staggering. In 2007, medium-size and heavy trucks used 34 billion gallons of diesel fuel. According to E&E analysis, trimming 1 percent of that fuel would have saved 3.4 million tons of CO2.

Analysts of the trucking industry said they hadn’t seen something like GenShock before. Some said previous energy-generating efforts, using electromagnets, never caught on.

Anderson and Avadhany are meeting with truck manufacturers and one of Detroit’s Big Three carmakers. Transit operators have called, too, suspecting GenShock would reap huge fuel savings in their bus fleets. Levant keeps regular contact with military clients, whose vehicles navigate the roughest terrain there is. The technology isn’t just for new vehicles, either — it can also replace an old car’s shocks.

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