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Bionic Energy

ASHLAND — "Pedal power" has a whole new meaning these days on the campus of Southern Oregon University.

A group of SOU students have created a way to capture the energy produced by pedaling a stationary bike, transform it into electricity, and feed the juice into the power grid.

Students assembled their "Grid Cycle" for $3,000 over the past 10 months with help from Robert Coffan of Medford, an adjunct instructor and owner of Katalyst Energy. Coffan worked with students from the computer science, physics, and health and physical education departments to build what looks like an ordinary mountain bike — except the rear wheel is connected to a generator and an inverter, which changes the direct current produced on the bike into an alternating current and feeds it into an ordinary 110-volt outlet.

Coffan said the project's goal is to inspire environmentally minded people to understand that a fitness workout on a bicycle can translate into a smaller personal carbon footprint and reduce demand for power from traditional sources, such as coal-burning power plants.

With the prototype Grid Cycle now a reality, Coffan's next goal is to equip the SOU gym with more of them and then expand to other fitness centers, such as the Ashland YMCA.

Jamie Vener, of the health and physical education department, who came for the unveiling, said the bionic bike is "an exciting marriage and, since it produces energy, may be attractive to some people who might otherwise not want to work out."

That analysis could apply to Coffan himself.

"Frankly, I don't like to go to the gym," Coffan said, "but I like to be productive, and I would do it if I could go there and trickle electricity to the grid."

A "black box" server on the machine, built by the students, links to the group's Web site, www.bionicenergy.org, and records all the people who ride the bike, along with how much energy they generated. It also shows a graph of the rider's energy output in real time.

By Thursday afternoon, the meter stood at 889 watt-hours, mostly from the pedaling of computer science and physics students Ryan Desmond, Jesse Firestone and Austin Riba. That's enough to light a 60-watt bulb for almost 15 hours, or to power an American home for about 40 minutes, based on the U.S. Department of Energy's estimated energy use of 31 kilowatt hours a day for an average home.

Riba, who spun out 3 watt hours in five minutes while demonstrating the machine during the annual Southern Oregon Arts & Research event in Stevenson Union, said if the system were installed in the SOU gym, it could compete with the University of Oregon, where stationary bikes supply the gym's electricity needs.

"Let's get 10 built and get them out in the community and see if people like them," Coffan said. "Some people say bionic energy is not viable, but the only thing stopping it is funding. A lot of people are dying to explore it."

Eric Dittmer, a teacher in SOU's Environmental Science Department and an adviser for the project, said it combines two good things — exercise and energy generation. He said it would inspire universities to compete with each other to generate the most power.

"I'd like to see it happen," said Vener. "There's no resistance about putting it in the SOU gym. They'd have to firm up the design and do research to see how much calories are burned to put energy on the grid."

Coffan may be reached at Katalyst Energy, 541-227-9024, or by e-mail at rcoffan@charter.net.

John Darling is a writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Southern Oregon University's Ryan Desmond rides a bionic energy bike in the Rogue River Room of SOU. The bike generates electricity and puts it back into the power grid. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch