How Fastronauts Will Work

Green Science Image Gallery The three Fastronaut toys use kinetic energy to light up and make noises. See more green science pictures.
Photo courtesy of Sara Fisher Paculdo/Photographer: Miguel Saldana

Each year, the Greener Gadgets Design Competition showcases some of the most innovative concepts in the world of eco-friendly product design. In 2008, an MIT grad took second place for a gravity-powered lamp. First place went to a gadget that lets people watch their home appliances draw energy from a wall outlet.

In 2009, the first place was Venetian blinds that capture solar energy during the day and then use that energy to light up at night, replacing the need for traditional indoor lighting. An in-sink composter that replaces a garbage disposal also rated high. But one of the most talked-about entries targeted a very different audience than these eco-home designs. A gadget called "Fastronaut" targets 5-year-olds (in age or at heart).

Fastronauts are toys with a not-so-hidden agenda. The overall idea is to give kids first hand experience with alternative energy. In this case, it's kinetic energy, or energy of motion. The toys are (very cute) astronauts that sit in one of two vehicles: a rocket, which is energized by the rotation of bicycle wheels, and a "moon cruiser" that powers up when someone rolls it along the ground. The rocket is actually a bike speedometer that shows kids how fast and how far they're going and how much energy they're generating by turning the pedals. That energy then goes to the toy's "toy" features: It lights up and makes noises, all directly powered by the kids' energy of motion.

It's an ingenious way to get kids interested in alternative energy. It does, however, have other benefits as well. In this article, we'll get inside the Fastronauts to find out how they work, and we'll see what else they're good for besides being green (and are they actually all that green?).

Let's begin by looking under the recyclable-plastic hood. How do Fastronauts get energy from motion?