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A Human Power Conversion System Based on

Childrens Play

Shunmugham R. Pandian
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA 70118

Abstract-A new method is proposed for harnessing of human
power based on children's play in playgrounds and public
places, on devices such as the seesaw, merry-go-round, and
swing. When large numbers of children play in a playground,
part of the power of their play can be usefully harnessed
resulting in significant energy storage. This stored energy can
then be converted to electricity for powering basic, low-power
appliances such as lights, fans, communications equipment, and
so on. The method provides a low-cost, low-resource means of
generation of electricity, especially for use in developing
countries. The paper discusses the basic theory behind the
method. Results of experiments on a laboratory prototype
compressed air human power conversion system using a teeter-
totter are presented to illustrate the practical effectiveness of the
proposed method.


Energy is the driving force of modern societies, and
generation and utilization of energy are essential for socio-
economic development. Per-capita energy consumption
levels are often considered a good measure of economic
development. In recent years, energy scarcity has become a
serious problem due to depletion of non-renewable energy
sources, increasing population, globalization of energy-
intensive economic development, environmental pollution,
and global warming [1], [2].

In this context, the field of renewable energy represents a
new frontier for the academic and research community, due
to the following factors:

Depletion or unreliability of non-renewable energy
sources, e.g., oil
Environmental pollution, e.g., due to coal use
Needs of increasing population, especially in
resource-scarce developing countries
Global Warming/Climate changes
New applications in modern, high-tech settings
e.g., wearable computing and portable consumer

While in developed countries the energy problem is one of
short-term scarcity or optimum use, an estimated 40% of the
world's population or, 2 billion people mainly in the less
developed countries do not have even have access to
electricity. Moreover, this number is expected to double by
the year 2050.

The reasons for this limited access to electricity in
developing countries are the lack of energy sources such as
coal, oil, or nuclear energy, and even where such sources
exist the lack of expensive capital to exploit existing
resources. While the costs of renewable energy sources such
as solar and wind energy are falling gradually, these
technologies are still far too expensive for developing
countries, where about half the population has incomes of
less than two dollars a day.

In recent years, there have been many interesting
developments in the field of human power conversion. In the
present paper, a method of harnessing the power of children's
play in playgrounds and public places, on devices such as the
seesaw, merry-go-round, and swing is proposed.

When large numbers of children play in a school playground,
part of the power of their play can usefully be harnessed
resulting in significant energy storage. This stored energy can
then be converted to electricity for powering basic, low-
power appliances in the school such as lights, fans,
communications equipment, and so on. The method provides
a low-cost, low-resource means of generation of auxiliary
electric power, especially for use in developing countries.

In the proposed method, compressed air devices are used for
the conversion and storage of human power. Use of
compressed air is explosion-proof and fire-proof and open
tubing results simply in air leakage. The lower efficiency of
the resulting system is compensated by the simplicity, safety,
and low-cost of operation of the pneumatic system.

The compressed air will be stored in storage tanks close to
the point of use, and used to power a pneumatic actuator such
as cylinder or air motor, which will in turn move an electric
generator to produce electricity. The electricity can be stored
in batteries, and used to power dc-operated lights and
appliances or to power ac-operated appliances through the
use of inverters and power control circuitry.


Human power was perhaps the earliest source of energy
known to mankind [3]. Its first uses were in tool-making,
plowing, rowing boat, and so on. Mechanized uses of human
power were achieved in the form of hand cranking by the
Romans. However, pedaling which is a simpler and less
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tiresome means of human power conversion did not come
about until the 19th century with the invention of the bicycle.
Human power was widely used in the developed countries in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries for purposes such as
irrigation, operating machinery, and as a source of electricity
for watching/listening to television and radio. In many
developing countries, human power is still widely used in
agriculture, industry, and services.

Interest in human power conversion declined in the early 20

century due to several technological developments:

Availability of cheap, abundant electrical energy
Use of compact, powerful, and versatile electric
motors and lights
Availability of cheap, disposable batteries for
portable use

In recent years, human power conversion is making a
comeback due to a variety of economic, environmental, and
technological factors:

Applications in less-developed countries and remote
locations of developed countries (e.g., camping)
Use in portable computing, where progress in
battery technology lags behind developments in
laptop PCs
Use in wearable computing and communication
devices, where absence of batteries or usable
energy in remote locations such as battle fields
hinders their continuous use
Energy shortage and high cost of solar/wind power
Use in emergency situations, e.g., earthquakes and
Energy conservation e.g., to minimize energy
requirements in power assist devices for elderly and
Environment friendly batteries are energy-
intensive to produce and are non-biodegradable
Advances in actuators, materials, and energy storage
Technological challenges e.g., human-powered
flight, with spin-off benefits

Trevor Baylis's (re)invention of the clock work radio
contributed immensely to this trend [4]. Various new
products are based on the use of human power conversion for
operating flash lights, cell phone battery chargers, wrist
watches, energy-scavenging shoes for wearable electronics
[5], power-harvesting shoes for soldiers [6], laptop and
wearable computers [7], children's toys [8], and so on.

Major technological developments in human power
conversion were brought about by the research of Paul
Macready named as the Engineer of the Century, by ASME
and his group in the area of human powered flight (e.g.,
[9]). This research led to new developments in the use of
light-weight composite materials, aerodynamic vehicle
design, high-power batteries, high-strength electric motors
and generators, and so on.



Activity Maximum human power (W)
Pushing button 0.64
Squeezing handle 12
Rotating crank 28
Riding bike > 100

Macreadys research also resulted in commercialization of
new products such as light reconnaissance aircraft, solar
powered flight, electric and hybrid vehicles, and electric
power-assist bicycles.

Human power conversion can be used to reduce the need for
large portable energy storage devices in orthosis and assistive
technology systems (e.g., [10]). Researchers in Japan are
exploring the potential of human power for rescue situations
such as earthquakes [11].

The significant potential of human power as an energy source
can be realized from the fact that daily average human
calorific consumption is about 2500 kcal.

1 cal = 4.184 J
=> 2500 kcal = 10.5 MJ 3kWhr

This is equivalent to the energy stored in 1050 AA alkaline
batteries [7]. Eating a hamburger gives us the energy of more
than 100 AA batteries.

Typical power outputs of some common human activities are
listed in Table I [12]. However, day-to-day human activities
also consume large amounts of energy, as shown in Table II
[7]. Therefore, the net energy available for conversion is
quite limited in practice.

Table III lists the typical power requirements of common
household electrical and electronic appliances. From these
considerations of human power, it is clear why most human
power conversion systems proposed so far are limited to
powering consumer electronics devices, e.g., portable radios
and flashlights.

From the discussions so far, we may conclude that (i) the
human power conversion-based systems developed so far are
mostly based on harnessing individual human power, (ii)
therefore they are mainly limited to powering low-power
consumer electronics devices, and (iii) the existing systems
are based on exertion of deliberate effort by individuals.



Activity Energy consumed (W)
Sleeping 81
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Sitting 116
Swimming 582
Sprinting 1630


Appliance Power consumption
Portable FM radio 30 mW
Walkman (play mode) 60 mW
Flashlight 4 W
Laptop PC 10 W
Fluorescent light 10-30 W
Desk fan 25-50 W
TV (20 in) 50 W
Water pump 100 W
Pressure cooker 500 W
Microwave oven 1000 W

It is clear that the systems proposed in literature are unsuited
to power basic domestic appliances such as fluorescent lights,
desk fans, television sets, or communications equipment
(e.g., fax machines). These are among the basic needs of a
majority of the population in developing countries.

In the present research, we propose harnessing the human
muscle power of children playing in public spaces such as
school playgrounds, on equipment such as teeter totters,
swings, and merry-go-rounds. Such an energy conversion is
playful and hence does not require deliberate effort.

For human power conversion systems to be useful in the
context of developing countries, several constraints need to
be considered: low-cost, low-resource and limited-skills
requirements, low-maintenance, safety and comfort to
humans, and environment-friendliness.

The low-cost requirement also imposes a trade-off between
cost and efficiency of the energy conversion system.
Improving the efficiency of the conversion system as is
often essential in the case of individual human power
conversion generally would result in increased cost of the
overall system. In the case of several children playing on
playground equipment, power is produced as a byproduct.
Therefore, a low-cost system can be designed and
implemented without seriously affecting efficiency, since a
large number of children are involved in the play.

Human power conversion is easily achieved from childrens
play under conditions where the children are static relative to

Figure 1. Types of childrens playground equipment

the moving playground mechanism, such as seesaw, swing,
and merry-go-round (Fig. 1). Where the children are in a
dynamic state relative to a static mechanism (e.g., slide) it
will be difficult to employ cost-effective human power
conversion techniques due to considerations of safety and

A variety of mechanisms are used for conversion of human
power to usable electrical or mechanical energy: springs,
hydraulic components, electric generators, piezoelectrics,
compressed air systems, flywheels, and so on [7]. The factors
affecting the choice of the most suitable conversion
mechanism are similar to those for the general energy
conversion problem [13].

We consider the use of pneumatic cylinders as ideal for play-
based human power conversion due to the following reasons

Low-cost and easy availability of pneumatic
actuators, e.g., in the form of the bicycle pump
Ease of operation of pneumatic systems
Simplicity of design and ease of maintenance
High power-to-weight and power-to-size ratios
Shock- and explosion-proof
Ability to withstand overloading, rapid reversals,
and continuous stalling
Safe dissipation of heat
Resistance to heat, humidity, and hazardous

The main limitations of compressed air systems for energy
conversion include their low efficiency, especially in
comparison with electric energy conversion systems, and the
very low energy storage density of compressed air. However,
these disadvantages are outweighed by the above-mentioned
advantages, especially low-cost, in the context of play-based
human power conversion. The compressibility of air also
makes pneumatic systems a preferred machine interface to
humans, e.g., rehabilitation robotics [10].

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Figure 2. Compressed air generation from teeter-totter
The basic principle of the new method is illustrated in Fig. 2.
For simplicity, we limit our discussion to power conversion
based on a seesaw. The cases of a swing and a merry-go-
around can be considered similarly.

The typical playground seesaw is often supplied with hard
cylindrical helical springs to smoothen the actions of the
seesaw mechanism. In the present study, instead of the
springs we employ two pneumatic cylinders on the two sides
of the seesaw. To prevent any accidents and injuries to
players limbs from the moving pistons, we can provide a
bellows-type flexible sheath between the bottom of seesaw
and the top of the cylinder. The outer bodies of the cylinders
will get heated up due to the compression of air inside. This
would require shielding of the outer bodies too (not shown

Figure 2 shows the process of compression of air and its
transmission to the power generator stage. For improved
compression rate, we consider the case of double acting
cylinders. The atmospheric air enters the cylinder ports
alternately through check valves. The reciprocating vertical
motion of the piston of the cylinder under the motion of the
seesaw results in compressed air being outputted through
check valves via the cylinder ports, to the compressed air

Fig. 3 illustrates the generation of electric power from the
compressed air. The compressed air from the pipeline is
stored in an air tank. Essential parts of the air tank, such as
pressure gage, pressure release valve, etc are not shown here
for simplicity.

When the compressed air inside the air tank reaches a set
pressure level, the on-off valve is opened. FRL stands for
filter-regulator-lubricator unit. If the pressure of the stored air
is low due to pressure drop along a long pipeline, then an air
booster unit can be used to reduce the volume and increase
the pressure of the air to the power generator unit.

Figure 3. Electricity generation from compressed air

The compressed air is used to drive an air engine or air
motor. An electromagnetic generator is coupled to the shaft
of the air motor/engine, resulting in conversion of the
compressed air energy to electric power. The generated
electricity can be stored in batteries as a source of back-up or
auxiliary power.

In general, air motors are very expensive compared to air
cylinders and moreover require extensive gearing. Therefore,
to reduce cost we can simply use the compressed air to
actuate a cylinder which in turn can be used in a slider-crank
mechanism to move the electric motor.

In the case of harnessing muscle power of children playing
on a swing, a pneumatic rotary actuator can be used as the
compression mechanism. Here again, industry-grade rotary
actuators are quite expensive. Therefore, a pinion-and-rack
gearing mechanism can be used along with a double acting
cylinder for compression of air. Swings are usually provided
with flexible chains, therefore the extraction of the swing
force for air compression will only be partial.

Air motors could be used in the case of merry-go-rounds for
compression. Here too, due to cost considerations it will be
preferable to use crank-slider mechanism (as used in positive
displacement reciprocating piston-type compressors) with an
air cylinder.


The motion of the endpoints of the seesaw beam about the
center of the seesaw is curvilinear. Due to the cylinders being
affixed vertically to ground, the bidirectional motion of the
pistons is linear.

Neglecting the mass of the seesaw beam, let the masses of
the children on the two sides be denoted as M
and M
. If the
vertical displacement of the children is given as h, and the
average acceleration is denoted as a, then the mechanical
energy expended by the childrens play during the stroke is

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( ) h a M M W
in 2 1
+ =

This mechanical energy is converted into the energy of
compressed air stored in the air tanks.

Neglecting the heat transfer to the container, we can assume
the compression of air to be polytropic, i.e., between
isothermal and adiabatic phases, with a related rise in
temperature [14].

The work done for one cycle of compression is given by




1 1


where P
is the initial pressure (absolute), V
is the air tank
volume, and P
is the final pressure. W is the work done (in
joules) by the compression of air, and is the ratio of specific
heats. is assumed to lie between 1.3 and 1.4 for air for
polytropic processes. Then, the above equation becomes


= 1 5 . 3
29 . 0
1 1

for =1.4. The air in the tanks is initially at the atmospheric

From the above equations, knowing the air tank volume and
the final pressure of air, we can calculate the work potential
of the compressed air stored in the tank.

In the next step, when the compressed air is released to
actuate the air motor/engine, the total boundary work done by
the expanding gas is given by [15]


where the tank volume is V
, and the air escapes into the
atmosphere finally occupying some volume V

The pressures and volumes are related by

1 2




and during expansion of air, since

2 2 1 1
V P V P = , we have



The work done by the expanding air is then given by




1 1

where P
is the pressure at release.

The work done by the expanding air is used to move the
pneumatic actuator, which is coupled to an electric generator
(usually, a dc motor used as a dc generator). Therefore, there
are energy losses due to friction in both the pneumatic and
electric actuators, as well as their finite efficiencies.


Figure 4. Prototype teeter-totter play power converter

Figure 5. Pneumatic-to-electric power converters

To illustrate the practical effectiveness of the proposed
human power conversion method, a laboratory prototype
using a teeter-totter as play equipment has been designed and
tested with children playing and producing power. A
photograph of the actual system is shown in Fig. 4.

Due to ease of installation in the laboratory, the power
conversion system was installed on a large wooden board,
The double-acting pneumatic cylinders (Bimba, SR0920-
DM, with 20 in stroke, 1-1/16 in bore stainless rod) were
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43 53 70 87
Children-pair weight (kg)





Input Output Efficiency
installed at an angle of 45 degrees on the two edges of the
seesaw (overall dimensions: 82-1/8L x 20W x 25-5/8H;
net weight: 37.5 lb). Check valves were used to direct the
compressed air into two 1.5 gallon interconnected air tanks.
1/4 in PVC tubing was used as the air pipeline. Pressure
gages were used to monitor the air pressure in the tanks.

Figure 6. Construction of air engine-based generator

Figure 7. Construction of inflator-based generator

We have built and tested three types of systems to convert the
energy of the compressed air into electric energy:
Direct coupling of an air motor to a dc motor/
generator, as shown in the foreground of Fig. 4.
Coupling of an air engine to a dc motor fitted with a
Retrofitting of a commercial dc-operated
compressor to act as a pneumatic-to-electric energy

In the first case, a Gast model 1AM-NRV-63A, 15:1 gear
ratio, air motor with max speed 350 rpm, was coupled to a
Pittman 24 V DC motor with 5.9:1 gear ratio. We found that
the efficiency of this system was quite low, due to the large
friction of air motors [16].

In the second case, we coupled the air pressure engine of an
Air Hog air pressure plane system (from Spin Master Toys)
to a Mabuchi dc motor for RC airplanes. The engine
specifications were 0.046 cu. in, torque 2 in. oz. @ 4000 rpm
@ 80 psi (Fig. 5, left).

In the last case, a Campbell Hausfeld 12 V dc inflator (300
psi) was modified using a three-way valve (Mac 1111-A-
011) to act as air -to-electric power converter (Fig. 5, right).
Figure 8. Results of seesaw-based power conversion

The details of construction of the air-engine based and
inflator-based power generators are shown in Fig. 6 and Fig.7

The electricity generated was used to directly power three
direct current appliances simultaneously: a 6 inch, 4 watt
fluorescent tube light, a low-power music player, and a two-
blade fan powered by a small hobby dc motor.

Fig. 8 shows a summary of results of trial runs when a few
pairs of children played on the seesaw.

In this figure, the input energy represents the total
mechanical energy expended by the children-pair for the
duration of play (3 minutes). It was calculated based on the
average number of strokes (35-40/min), the average stroke
length (30-40 cm), and the children-pair weight. The teeter-
totter beam mass was neglected.

The output energy represents the work potential of
compressed air in the tanks (total volume of compressed air
tanks: 3 gallons). The compressed air pressure varied from
about 30 to 55 psi (g), depending on the weight and timing of

The energy of compressed air in the tank is converted by the
pneumatic-to-electric power converters, and the electricity
produced is used to power the appliances. Of the three
converters developed, the air pressure engine was the most
efficient, and the air motor-based one was the least efficient.

Fig. 9 shows the results when the three gallon tank
compressed air at 50 psig (data set 4 in Fig. 6) was used to
power the fluorescent light, using the air pressure engine
converter. The total electric energy expended on the load is
about 550 J. This represents a pneumatic-to-electric energy
conversion efficiency of 16.7%, and overall system
efficiency (from the mechanical play energy to final payload
energy) of 1.6%.
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The above system efficiency is comparable to that of shoe-
based power converters reported in literature. These
converters typically produce about 1 W power output from
the human walking action involving energy expenditure of
about 65 W.

In the prototype, for simplicity the compressed air from the
tank is not delivered to the air engine at a regulated pressure.
Therefore, the power converter efficiency is reduced for
smaller tanks due to rapid pressure drops.

For example, Fig. 9 also shows the case of a larger, 11 gallon
tank used with the air engine converter to power the
fluorescent light and other loads. In this case, while the tank
capacity is 3.6 times that of the smaller tank, the electric
energy output is 5.5 times as high. At this rate, two children
playing on a seesaw for three minutes could be expected to
power a low-power electric appliance with 14 W for a minute

Figure 9. Air engine power conversion


The proposed approach can be applied to power conversion
using swings, merry-go-rounds, aero bikes, etc., where the
child is stationary with respect to the playground equipment.
The power output levels could be expected to be much higher
with merry-go-rounds, where many children can play at the
same time.

Due to limitations of space and facilities, the laboratory
prototype developed in this study has used small-sized power
converters (air cylinders and electric motors), air tanks, and
low-efficiency payloads. Therefore, in a typical playground
situation where several children play at the same time on
different playground equipment, larger-sized components
could be used resulting in higher-efficiency power
conversion. Vertical installation of the air cylinders would
also significantly improve the energy efficiency.

For ease of implementation, industry-grade pneumatic
components such as cylinders and valves have been used in
the prototype. These components are generally designed to
operate at high pressures with low leakage, but consequently
have high friction. So, low-friction, low-pressure components
may be used for better efficiency. For example, in the field of
robotic orthoses newer soft actuators such as rubber actuators
have been developed to meet similar requirements [10].
Commercial bicycle pumps with built-in check valves too
have lower friction.

Electromechanical generators can of course be used with
higher efficiency [17]. However, cost and safety issues have
to be considered in this case. The cost-to-size and cost-to-
power ratios of electric actuators are quite high compared to
pneumatic actuators. Moreover, hazards of electric shock
may offset the higher efficiency of direct mechanical-to-
electric power conversion. Further, electrical systems are
more expensive to weather-proof compared to pneumatic

Further research and development, and extensive field trials
are required to develop guidelines for optimum selection of
component types and sizing, interfacing to playground
equipment, safety and comfort issues, weather-proofing,
noise, and so on. Locale-specific conditions may also play a
major role in the practical implementation of the power

To reduce maintenance and improve the performance, it is
necessary to filter the air entering the compressing cylinders.
This is particularly so because air in the playground
atmosphere is dust-filled. However, coarse air filters may be
sufficient in most cases unlike in precision industrial
operation. In practice, trade-offs between cost of air filters
and cost of maintenance of low-cost cylinders may also be

A beneficial side effect of the use of compressed air power
converters in playgrounds is that the due to the use of the
filter unit, the outlet air from the system will be cleaner than
the atmospheric air (cf. [18]). The injection of microscopic
oil particles from the lubrication unit, however, may be
considered negligible.

In addition to its use as a source of back-up power, the
proposed system also can have the educational value of
raising energy and environmental awareness, esp. among
children, in schools and museums.

Exercise bicycles have been investigated for nearly a century
as a source of electricity generation, and their use for power
generation by children in schools has also been suggested
[19]. While such an approach has the advantage of
harnessing a large portion of the pedaling power from the
stationary bikes, it also has the limitation of requiring
deliberate effort.

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The use of childrens play has been used for irrigation in
Columbia [20]. This approach uses expensive hydraulic
actuators. More recently, in Laos a group of volunteer
engineers have used pedal power conversion to generate
electricity for a village without electricity [21]. This
electricity has been used for providing access to telephony
and the Internet.

Collective human power conversion is an example of micro
power generation schemes, which offer significant promise
for empowering individuals and local communities in both
developed and developing countries. An example of this
approach is a micro hydroelectric power generator reported
in [22]. In this work, a small, low-cost hydroelectric
generator is used for harvesting micro power from river
water flow, without need for construction of dams. Similar
low-cost, downsized power generators from solar, wind, and
other energy sources need the attention of researchers and
educators worldwide.

Ethical questions may be raised on the use of children for
power generation. However, the power generated in the
proposed scheme is meant toward essential use in schools
and other public places in developing countries, or for
purposes of education-cum-entertainment on energy-related
topics. Due to the relatively small amounts of power
involved, the power generated itself has little commercial
value (e.g., for cogeneration or selling to utilities).


A new method for human power conversion based on
childrens play on playground equipment has been proposed.
The power harnessed can be used as an auxiliary or back-up
source for electricity, especially in developing countries.
Pneumatic components are used as power conversion devices
along with equipment such as seesaw, swing, etc. A
laboratory prototype based on a seesaw has been developed,
and experimental results obtained illustrate the practical
effectiveness of the proposed method.


The research reported in this study was conducted while the
author was with the Engineering Science Program at the
University of Michigan-Flint. It was supported by a Faculty
Research Development Grant from the UM-Flint Office of
Research. The author is thankful to Robert Victor for help in
construction of the lab prototype, and to Dr. Meenakshi
Vijayaraghavan, Ethan Roelle and Casey Lang for help with


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