Meet the entrepreneur turning your footsteps into energy
Could turning our footsteps into electricity help meet our energy needs? One young eco-entrepreneur thinks so.
Laurence Kemball-Cook seems like the kind of young man any mother would want her daughter to bring home. He has a neat, healthy, clean-cut appearance and a polite, even charming manner. His office near London’s King’s Cross Station is relaxed, a little scruffy, filled with informally dressed staff who all radiate the same air of youthful enthusiasm as their boss.
Yet this 30-year-old engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur is by his own admission an obsessive workaholic. “Some people would probably say that I’m a perfectionist, to a point that can be quite frustrating,” he says.
He’s also the creator of Pavegen, a paving tile for which he now holds a patent, that turns the force of people’s footsteps into clean, renewable energy. And Laurence wants to use it to change the world.
“My vision is for Pavegen to be to cities what ‘Intel inside’ is for PCs,” he says. “I want to cover every single city in the world with our tiles. I want to turn every bridge, road and building into a kinetic energy device.”
Laurence puts his tile technology through its paces
The idea first came to him while he was studying industrial design and technology at Loughborough University. As part of his course, he was sent to work at the energy company E.ON.
“They said, ‘Laurence, can you design a street light that’s powered by solar or by wind?’ ” he recalls. “But when the sun’s not shining there’s no power and when the wind’s not blowing there’s no power. So I tried for a year and I failed.
“I was really upset. Then one day I was walking through Victoria Station in London and I thought about all the people there. I’d read that 38,000 people an hour walked through the station. What if we could harness that energy as a power source?”
“I want to cover every single city in the world with our tiles."
Laurence admits, “The idea of generating energy from footsteps isn’t new and other people have tried it. They’re using things such as the piezo-electric crystals you find in cigarette lighters to create a charge. But the power is so low that you can never do anything meaningful with that energy.”
Laurence took a completely different route. The weight of a footstep on his tile makes a horizontal flywheel inside it rotate.
“The more people walk, the more this flywheel spins,” he explains. “Then we withdraw the power from the flywheel as we need it. We can suck it out bit by bit.”
Every pedestrian that passes over a tile generates around seven watts in energy. At the 2013 Paris Marathon, where Pavegen installed tiles at the finish as part of a pop-up promotion, the runners crossed 176 tiles, leaving 401,756 footsteps that generated 3,141,926 joules—enough to recharge 1,880 mobile phones or power an electric Nissan Leaf car for 15 miles.
Pavegen tiles at Heathrow Airport
Kemball-Cook today manufactures the tiles at a factory in Romania. “I love the people in Eastern Europe,” he says. “My engineers there speak very emotionally about the Communist days. They couldn’t buy anything from outside Romania, so they had to make everything themselves. It’s amazing, that can-do attitude.”
He’s already exporting his tiles from Romania via London to the world. “We’ve done more than 135 projects in over 30 countries. We’ve been contracted by the mayor of Washington to install Pavegen just outside the White House. We covered the Champs-Elysées in Paris with our tiles for the 2013 Paris Marathon. At the Milan Expo we made a system for Coca-Cola so that as people danced on the floor it powered the music and made it go louder.”
Kemball-Cook reels off the European cities where his tiles have been laid—Madrid, Athens, Malmö, Sofia, Bucharest—and the multinationals such as BASF and Diageo with whom he’s worked.
But his ambitions are as much moral as commercial. Once the tiles are manufactured, the system requires no fossil fuels, generates no CO2 and produces no pollutants, which is why he says, “Some people might define their aims as wealth or success, but for me it’s just, Let’s get it out there and do good.”
But could this really make a difference to everyday energy use? Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of Britain’s branch of the non-profit World Green Building Council, thinks so. Pavegen is a “hugely innovative technology”, she says.
She likes the way that it “engages users and makes them aware that they’re helping to solve a problem. We certainly need every clever form of renewable solution.”
Runners bound over the tiles at the Paris marathon
Hirigoyen sees Pavegen as one of those possible solutions, but cautions that the manufacturing cost—which Kemball-Cook estimates as £230–£310 per square metre of tile—remains a problem except in places with very substantial footfall, such as shopping centres, railway stations and airports.
Laurence is well aware that price is an issue but claims, “In the next 24 months we’ll make our tiles the same price as normal flooring. And when you install them, they’ll give you energy for free.”
There’s no doubting Laurence’s good intentions for his technology. In a project funded by Shell in 2014, Laurence brought Pavegen to the Morro da Mineira favela, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden areas of Rio de Janeiro. Two hundred tiles were placed underneath the surface of a local football pitch, so now the players help power the floodlights.
“Some people might define their aims as wealth or success, but for me it’s just, 'Let’s get it out there and do good.'”
This was clearly a project that meant a huge amount to Laurence: “It’s a crazy environment, where the kids run around with machine guns, but it was an honour to work with those guys.”
It’s all a long way from the quiet cathedral city of Canterbury, Kent, where Laurence grew up after his family moved from London. At school, he says, “I was really into taking things apart and putting them back together. I just loved it.
“I’ve always had an engineering heritage. My grandfather helped develop early radar technology and worked on the first computers for disabled people. My uncle has also spent his whole life inventing things.”
Each time a pedestrian walks over a tile, seven watts of energy is produced
By his mid-twenties, Laurence had become a young business star. He was invited to accompany prime minister David Cameron on a trade mission to China.
But he didn’t get everything right. Early Pavegen tiles had large, round lights that lit up whenever anyone stepped on them. They looked great, but, says Laurence, “When we started installing them we saw that women all walked around the lights. They were worried there were cameras in there, looking up their skirts.”
There’s also another side to the tiles: they can be used to gather data about footfall. Shopping-centre companies could see exactly how many people go where, and when, and determine precisely which are the most valuable spots in their developments. Managers of stations, airports or stadia could detect and prevent dangerous levels of overcrowding building up.
To date, Pavegen has earned around £3m and is valued at £20m. But, says Laurence, “I still live in the same bedroom that I did when I started the company and I’m happy there. I have a faster bicycle than I did back then, but that’s it. There’s no point in taking money out of the business at this stage. If I focus on the business, good times will come.”
His dedication has come at a personal price. As he puts it: “Total girlfriends lost: three.” He adds, “A lot of my friends have got families and kids at this stage of their lives, but I’ve chosen not to because this is my challenge—and until I’ve done it I don’t want to worry about that.”