By Brian Blum
Green energy is big business these days and Israel is frequently at the forefront of innovation, whether through solar energy extraction or the development of large wind farms. But both these methods are tethered to the weather – no sun or wind, no power.
A small Israeli start-up with R&D headquarters at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology has a better idea: Harness the power of the highways and railroads, with their non-stop stream of traffic, rain or shine.
Founded in 2007 by researchers from the Technion and Hadassah, the Ra’anana- and Haifa-based Innowattech has developed a system of small piezoelectric generators designed to be embedded under the asphalt.
Every time a vehicle passes over the pad, Innowattech’s technology converts the unit’s natural compression into electricity, which is either stored in a battery for immediate use (such as powering the lights or security cameras near the road) or channeled to the national electricity grid.
Every time a vehicle passes over an Innowattech pad, its energy is converted into electricity, which can either be used to power streets lights or channeled to the national electricity grid.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the exit lane: Innowattech’s scientists discovered that the generators can also extract data on the very same trucks that are generating the power. By measuring the distance between pads and the amount of time it takes for a truck to travel between them, Innowattech can dynamically calculate the truck’s weight and velocity.
If a truck is too heavy, that data can be sent wirelessly to the police or road company. And it’s all a self-contained loop – the trucks generate the power that powers the tracking system that catches the trucks.
It turns out that the demand for identifying overweight trucks from the generators fills an immediate need. The "weight-in-motion" market, as it’s called, "is very mature," explains Innowattech CEO Lucy Edery-Azulay. "Overweight trucks cause damage to the roads which in turn requires the companies in charge of the roads to spend more on maintenance than expected."
The most common solution in place around the world has trucks pulling into weighing stations for mandatory checks – a costly endeavor to build and one that slows down the transportation of goods by forcing every vehicle to stop when only 10 percent of trucks are in fact over the weight limit.
Innowattech has just launched a test of its weigh-in-motion system on a stretch of Highway 75 near Haifa. The project was developed in conjunction with the Israel National Roads Company. A similar trial on a roadway – albeit to generate energy – was installed last year in Italy, as was a small prototype on just 33 feet of Israel’s Road Four north of Hadera on the coastal plain.
Tracking the trains
Edery-Azulay envisions other uses for her company’s technology. For example, to monitor entrance and exit points of places like gas stations, ports, quarries and warehouses; or to dynamically adjust tolls on pay roads and bridges.
Innowattech’s focus on trucks isn’t surprising. When the company initially developed its system of using asphalt-embedded "piezoelectric" materials to generate electricity, it found that trucks because of their heavy weight produced more electricity than private cars.
Edery-Azulay calculates that 500 trucks passing over a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) stretch of road at an average speed of 72 kilometers (45 miles) an hour can produce 200 KWh per hour. That’s enough electricity to provide for the average consumption of 200-300 households.
Ironically, it’s possible that Innowattech’s technology may not be deployed in Israel. "The number of trucks that we have in Israel is limited, compared to the number of trucks that travel on roads in Europe, Russia and the US," says Edery-Azulay.
Trucks, however, are small potatoes compared to trains – the mother lode of electricity generation. "Trucks weigh around 40 tons, but each wagon of a train is more than double that. It’s a huge amount of mechanical energy" just waiting to be tapped, relates Edery-Azulay. Innowattech began pilot tests in October 2010 with Israel Railways in the Haifa area.