Industry Update: Heriot Watt University leads the way in harvesting unused bridge energy

Heriot Watt has received £340,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, and $443,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research and develop a revolutionary vibro-impact energy harvesting device.  

Traffic and wind regularly cause low-frequency vibrations to ripple through bridge building materials such as steel and concrete. This energy would normally travel away from its source before dissipating but academics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh alongside colleagues from Georgia State University and Georgia Tech in the US, have recognised an opportunity. They intend to capture and recycle this untapped source by using the principles of physics. 

Dr Daniil Yurchenko from Heriot-Watt University has created a prototype called a ‘vibrant pack energy harvester’ that can be fitted at multiple locations on a bridge. These autonomous devices, measuring around 5 – 10cm in length, do not require wiring to an electrical power source and are relatively cheap to manufacture. 

This electrical energy is stored in a battery and used to power a sensor capable of monitoring the structural integrity of a bridge. Engineers can then record multiple measurements, such as vibrations, traffic load, wind and temperature, all at the same time but without the need for specialist infrastructure to be installed at significant cost. 

Dr Yurchenko from the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, explains that while dielectric elastomer technology has been tried in wave energy, nothing has been done on this centimetre scale before. 

“What we are doing is creating a more efficient and cost-effective solution by harvesting energy that would otherwise be lost,” he said. 

“It’s something that has never been done before in this way. 

“It’s a technology that can be used on any bridge anywhere in the world. There are plenty of places where these devices can be fitted to a bridge structure such as on cables, on the pillars, other sides of the bridge deck, there really aren’t any limits. 

The team is working alongside Wenzel Consult, an independent company that specialises in bridge sensor technology in Austria and Turkey. As the project advances, the scientists say they intend to carry our real-life testing of their prototype on a 32m long highway bridge in northern Austria. The multidisciplinary project, entitled, Stochastic Nonsmooth Analysis For Energy Harvesting, is due to complete in 2024. 

The scientists say that in the future the same technology could be adapted and used to harvest energy from other vibrating man-made structures and machines. 

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