Watts Your Step

One British startup plans to wire your shoes

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE HUMAN potential movement has a new ally in the Electric Shoe Company, a Leicester, England–based firm that expects, within two years, to perfect technology that will take the kinetic energy of walking and convert it into electricity—meaning the only batteries around will be in landfills. Or so the inventors say.

"It's one of those obvious 'It's got to be done'–type things," says company founder Trevor Baylis, inventor of the FreePlay windup radio. Piers Hubbard-Miles, Electric Shoe's managing director, goes so far as to suggest that ped power could energize almost any portable electronic device, from a GPS unit to an MP3 player. And, of course, athletic-shoe companies are gushing over the idea. "The opportunity is immense," says Mark Thompson, an engineer with the "Adidas innovation team."

But so are the hurdles. The juice must somehow flow from heel to gizmo, and fast-and-light trekkers, for example, will no doubt sneer at the notion of flapping leg wires. The answer here, says Hubbard-Miles, may emerge from recent "wearable computing" work at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where researchers have sewn working circuits into washable clothing.

The hard part—generating current—has more or less been figured out, though. The most promising in-heel generator: piezoelectric material—a synthetic ceramic substance that, once compressed, generates a burst of juice that can be stored. The material already has a track record. Wearing piezoelectric prototypes that slowly charged his cell-phone battery, Baylis trekked across the Namibian desert in July. "I was knackered every night," says the 63-year-old. "But think of the potential."

Café Mate
Step aside, Starbucks. Stand down, Red Bull. This South American tea is all the rage among athletes in search of a kick.

"IT'S LIKE PUTTING SUPER unleaded into my body," says Mo Hart, an Oakland, California–based sailboat racer. He's talking about yerba mate, a South American tea that looks like low-grade marijuana and tastes like a cup of hay. Brewed from the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, a member of the holly family, and served in a hollowed-out bull horn, mate has fueled Paraguayans for centuries. Today's North American converts are no less zealous about its ability to stave off hunger and provide a jitter-free boost. Stan Quintana, a North Carolina–based triathlete, guzzles it after workouts, claiming it aids muscle recovery and doesn't upset his stomach or dehydrate him like coffee, and University of New Mexico lacrosse coach Eric Webb and some members of his team swear by it.

Nationwide, organic grocers report that sales have steadily increased over the last six months. And, to meet the demand of athletes, the Albuquerque-based firm Yerba Mate Revolution is developing a hydration pack for sipping on the go, as well as special tea bags for mountaineers.

Daniel Mowrey, president of herbal medicine firm American Phytotherapy Research, in Provo, Utah, claims the kick comes from xanthine, a chemical compound possessing "all the good effects of caffeine without the bad." Though mate's impact on athletic performance has not been formally studied, the Physicians Desk Reference says the tea contains theobromine (an alkaloid similar to caffeine) and plain old caffeine—a stimulant banned by the International Olympic Committee. No wonder, then, that James Dillard, a professor at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, calls mate herbal speed. "Is there a difference between this and a couple thermonuclear cups of coffee?" Dillard cries. "No. It's just drugs—green drugs!" —Michelle Pentz

Ballard's search for Endurance

"I wish him luck, but I don't feel very confident he'll be crowned with success. I don't think it exists."

—Alexandria Shackleton, president of the London-based James Caird Society and granddaughter of legendary Arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, on plans for an expedition by Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard to search for the wreckage of Endurance, Shackleton's ship. The recently announced trip to Antarctica's Weddell Sea is planned for early 2002. In a series of now famous images, expedition photographer Frank Hurley captured the sinking of Endurancein 1915 as pack ice crushed the hull to bits. Not everything went to the bottom, of course: Some artifacts will appear this October in a new exhibit organized by Alexandria's group at Dulwich College in London.

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