Space & Innovation

Road Crystals Generate Energy from Traffic Jams

California is investing $2 million to study the effect of embedding piezoelectric crystals into road surfaces.

There are some things on the planet that have no discernible upside. Mosquitoes. Telemarketing. The entire career output of Shia LaBeouf.

You might be tempted to include traffic jams on this list, but hold on a minute: The California Energy Commission is hoping to leverage a potential upside to gridlock by generating electricity from the vibrations of vehicles driving and idling on the road.

In fact, the agency has just committed $2 million into a project that would embed asphalt with piezoelectric crystals, which generate energy when stretched, compressed or vibrated. The idea: Every time a vehicle passes over a stretch of embedded pavement, the crystals would squirt out tiny bits of electricity. Harvested in aggregate, the system could generate enough energy to be piped directly into the city's power grid.

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It might seems like a flighty California-style idea -- crystals and vibrations -- but actually, it's been tried before. The new initiative follows a series of projects in Japan, Europe and Israel that also leverage the power of the piezoelectric effect within road surfaces. California's rather legendary gridlock issues could be a game changer.

"It's not hard to see the opportunity in California," said Mike Gravely, the commission's deputy division chief of energy research and development, in an Associated Press article regarding the announcement. "It's an energy that's created but is just currently lost in vibration."

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The piezoelectric project is intended to help California reach its goal of achieving 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. The state is on target to reach 25 percent by the end of the year, according to the energy commission and the AP report.

Piezoelectric gizmos are popping up all over the place in recent years. For instance, it's a big area of research in wearable technology, since small electrical charges can be generated from even the slightest mechanical energy -- the swish of your clothes while walking, say. For more on how the piezoelectric effect works, check out this helpful little primer.