04 July 2011

Bicycle Machines

Lately I've been swept up by a fascination with bicycle-machines: a whole range of mechanical functions driven by the power of a human-pedaled bicycle. Laundry-machines and blenders, honey-centrifuges and grinders, the bicycle-machine can greatly reduce the time and energy necessary for many ordinary, everyday tasks. They can also be used to generate electricity using an alternator or dynamo, powering small electronic devices, LED lighting, even a laptop computer. But truly bicycle-machines are most efficiently used in the production of mechanical power. For all our washing, spinning, grinding, husking, blending needs, a bicycle-machine can remove the need to consume electrical energy in performing these mechanical tasks, thereby helping us reduce our electrical energy consumption and to improve the efficiency of how electrical energy is used; reserved for essential electronic devices instead of being unnecessarily guzzled in high-input electric motors. Plus, the kinetic exercise in powering a bicycle-machine is good for the body, a much better use of time than pushing a button and idly waiting in front of the television for a load to finish. And best of all, bicycle-machines operate using simple mechanics that nearly everyone can learn to repair or even build using common tools and human hands. Bicycle-machines are based on truly human-scale technology with a vast potential to provide mechanical power without the need for electricity. So, with such an adaptable energy source available, why aren't we using more bicycle-machines?

Our modern-day priorities and expectations have become very mixed-up in terms of our energy needs. Why spend hours and dollars a week at a private gym when one can have their own spin class at home doing laundry? The social aspects of gym membership could be restructured in community gatherings to design and build more human-scale technology! Obviously I am speaking a little tongue-in-cheek, but the truth remains that converting electrical energy into mechanical power is very inefficient and costly, especially when the electrical energy is generated using finite or contaminating resources like coal, gas, and petroleum. So long as we continue to nurture our addiction to the false ease of button-pushing power (nearly all of which tasks we performed only a generation or two ago by hand), a realistic jump to alternative energy sources remain an impossibly expensive pipe-dream only accessible by the extremely rich or become a mega-project extension of our mega-consumption lifestyle, dominating our horizons with massive stands of wind turbines or algae fields or solar arrays to power our impossible demands. Imagine instead coming home on your commuter bicycle which pops into a standing structure to mix yourself a margarita before you send your clothes through the rinse cycle or grind your coffee beans or knead dough for tomorrow's breakfast.

I am a big supporter of alternative or green electricity production, but I also know its limitations when used on a small-family scale where electrically-driven motors simply require more investment in sun and batteries than most people can afford. Small-scale solar is great for keeping cell phones or laptops charged or even providing 12V car stereo music, but it will never run a blender to froth the egg in a pisco sour, let alone spin excess water from wet laundry or run a circular saw. Having spent some years perfecting my hand-saw technique and how to best wring-out wet clothes, going without pisco sours while at home, the potential of a bicycle-machine to put leg-strength to work on these tasks strikes as lightning revelation, an answer from the heavens that ironically has always been available at least in my lifetime. When electricity was cheap and thoughtless, the genius of the bicycle mechanism was temporarily forgotten. Now folks all over the world are pulling gears out of their closets and putting pedals to power. I hope some of these ideas inspire you as well, returning us all to technology a little more human in scale.

In Guatemala, Maya Pedal
In Mexico, C.A.C.I.T.A. (a great video on a variety of bicycle-powered devices with English subtitles)
An idea for an electric generator
An idea for a bicycle washing machine
An idea for a bicycle blender