July 3, 2007. The Institute For The Future hosted a talk by Colin Bulthaup, CEO of Potenco, a spinoff of Squid Labs, based in Alameda, California. Colin characterized SL as a Do Tank, not a think tank.
Fourteen months ago they had been working on smart rope, a rope that knows when it is about to break, but with a grant from the OLPC team they developed a pull-cord generator (PCG) that can be used to charge mp3 players, mobile phones, LED lights, portable batteries, GPS devices, and the XO laptop.
Their base line human is an eight year old pulling on the yo-yo device. They even tested the amount of CO2 produced as a kid uses it, as well as calories expended (very few). One minute of pulling generates enough energy for 20 minutes of talk time on a mobile phone and four hours play time on an iPod Shuffle. Colin explained that they had done research on the best kind of string, using some new synthetic material, and as backup, there are two extra sets coiled inside the housing of the device. They have designed it so that it can be hacked. For instance, by removing the cover (top picture) it could be attached to a bicycle hub and generate more than 20 watts of power. Here is a short YouTube video where Colin demonstrate the PCG.
He is interested in how the availability of decentralized electricity will change village life and spur small scale entrepreneurs who will provide charging for others. I suggested that patterns of exploitation in a culture will be repeated with the advent of a new technology, so you might see kids and women assigned/forced to do the charging, but the technology makes much more sense that hauling a car battery around to charge phones in rural areas.
It was relatively easy to pull repeatedly, and the stronger the person the greater the resistance and higher wattage generated. Colin had a hexagonal battery consisting of an array of LEDs, 2 USB ports (the standard for charging these days), and a DC input. This was a proof of concept, and the commercial battery will look different. Colin discussed the problems of using kerosene for lighting. Besides being very inefficient, it was dangerous and contributed to respiratory disease, and was quite expensive. He sees this advanced lighting as an important replacement for kerosene.
He also brought an early model of the XO laptop. Many of these will be in rural areas with little electricity infrastructure, so each ministry of education placing orders will have to determine how many PCGs they will need for those users who have no other source of electricity. I asked what the cost will be, and while it was not finalized he said it would add about 10% to the cost of the XO. At this time that would be about $17. There are plans to sell it commercially in retail, and they have a number of ideas about the next phase, especially in the health sector. One African has developed a low cost defibrilator which could be charge in ten seconds of pulling! Another application is small-scale refrigeration for drugs in hot climates.
He brought an earlier version of the XO and asked who wanted to try it. One person said people had a hard time figuring out how to open the XO, and indeed the researcher who volunteered took 53 seconds to figure out how the screen opened up!