Two landmark Canadian inventions in Time’s “Top 50” list

Two Canadian inventions are among the 50 named in Time Magazine’s Top Inventions list for 2008.

Montréal’s high-tech public bike system and the Biomechanical Energy Harvester and ranked nineteenth and thirty-third respectively in Time’s list.

The magazine, which hit news stands Oct. 31, featured a wide array of inventions unveiled this year — from bullets that shoot bullets to the Chevy Colt.

The Harvester is a knee brace that draws energy from the user’s stride.

The lightweight brace weighs just two pounds and can harvest between one and 13 watts of power for one minute of walking – enough power to charge a mobile phone for 30 minutes of talking.

The device is rigged with a generator, clutch, gears and a real-time control system to selectively engage and disengage power, based on need.

It works in the same fashion as an electric car, collecting kinetic energy that would otherwise be discharged as heat when the car slows down.

The Harvester collects the energy released when muscles of the body slow the knee after kicking the leg forward to take a step.

The invention originated with conversations between Max Donelan, assistant professor of kinesiology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and co-inventor Art Kuo, more than ten years ago.

“My research area involves how people walk and how to use that information to improve human health,” Donelan said.

He said the idea for the Harvester came from seeing other people’s work on collecting energy from the human body.

He realized that by making some changes, a lot more power could be generated “without increasing effort required by the user.”

This idea, a year and a half ago, led to the forming of Bionic Power, in Burnaby, B.C. – a company that transformed the invention into a usable product.

The product is still about a year and a half away from being ready, Donelan said, adding that the first testing group would try the prototype in about six months.

The real markets for the device will be individuals whose lives depend on portable power, the SFU professor said.

One group showing interest in the invention is the Canadian Forces.

Batteries can be as important to soliders as food and water, Donelan said.

Batteries, he said, provide portable power required for vital tasks such as navigation, determining how long it would take to get back to base, communication with the team and more.

Other protectors of public safety, such as ambulance personnel and firefighters, could also benefit from the technology, Donelan said.

During large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, power grids and communication lines go down.

He said two-way radios can be battery intensive, and the ability to generate power with motion ensures they don’t run out of power in emergency situations.

Further down the road, the invention could become available for various consumer applications.

“[Increasingly] people say they want to be able to harvest their own energy to fuel their cell phones and iPods,” said Donelan. “They are using an alternative power source and [enjoy] the freedom of not living off the electrical power grid.”

Montréal’s public bike system, the second invention to make Time’s list, also appeals to the environmentally conscious consumer.

The system – dubbed Bixi – offers commuters with an alternative, “greener” form of transportation.

Bixi is a self-service bike rental system based on popular bike-sharing programs that originated in the French cities of Paris and Lyon.

Users can take a bike from one location and drop it off at any other station. The system allows users to buy a seasonal pass, which provides a free half hour of cycling for each use or pay for each ride with their credit card, said bike designer Michel Dallaire.

“People can get off the subway and ride for 20 minutes to their office – it’s very practical and good exercise. It will get you much closer to your office door than the bus,” he said.

In 2007, the city of Montréal launched its transportation plan and with a big focus on active modes of transportation, such as cycling and walking.

Allain Ayotte, executive vice-president at Bixi, the new “bike sharing” system came about as a result of technology prowess and strong political will.

What with rising gas prices and the overall effect of the automobile on the environment, the population sought an alternative to cars” said Ayotte.

“We came to the city and said we [wanted] to develop a public bike sharing system,” he recalled.

He said his company was given the green light but “with certain stipulations – the city will not fund the project, system must break even, and sharing system must be easy to operate and easy to use.”

The bike docks hold six bikes each, have a modular design, and use solar power and wireless communications. Each bike is outfitted with a radio-frequency ID (RFID) tag so they can be easily tracked.

The wireless design allows the bikes and docking station to be removed each winter. The bikes are also the first in the world to be made of 100 per cent recyclable aluminum to avoid rusting.

Dallaire’s design allows the bikes to be used adjusted so it can be used by people of various sizes.

The city started with 40 bikes in Montréal this September, and is planning on having 2,400 Bixis by next Spring.

The group is also building another 5,000 bikes which will potentially be sold to other cities in North America.

“Several cities are requesting information about our system and we hope we’ll be able to sell this in Toronto, Vancouver and in the U.S. I mean why not, we sell aircraft, we sell subway [systems] why not bicycles?”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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