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?
As far as kid-friendliness goes, Fastronauts have it all: bells and whistles (and lights), instant feedback, adorably round silhouettes and small stature -- they're only about 6 inches tall and 6 inches wide (15 by 15 centimeters) in their vehicles. But it's what's going on inside that sets Fastronauts apart from other toys.
Converting motion into electricity dates back to the 1830s, when English scientist Michael Faraday proved that you could, so to speak, reverse-engineer electricity. It was long known that electric current generates an electromagnetic field. But Faraday showed that you could use an electromagnetic field to generate electric current. And you can create an electromagnetic field by spinning a metal coil between two magnetic poles. So if you can get a coil to spin, you can create electricity.
In the Fastronauts, the core of the system is a dynamo. A dynamo is simply a generator -- a device that uses a rotating coil and magnets to establish an electromagnetic field that then generates electricity. It turns energy of motion into electrical energy, just like the generator for a wind turbine or hydroelectric dam. In a Fastronaut, the energy input is human motion, instead of wind or moving water. But it works in the same way: A spinning wheel turns a gear inside the Fastronaut rocket, and that gear spins the dynamo to generate an electric current.
Fastronauts are certainly not the only devices to harness human energy for electrical output. Kinetic-powered flashlights use the same type of dynamo setup, but instead of riding a bicycle, the user repeatedly presses a lever. And there are bigger projects, too, like the Hong Kong fitness center that wired a bunch of its elliptical machines and treadmills to move a dynamo that generates electricity to run the gym [source: So].
The Fastronaut electric current is applied on a much smaller, but perhaps more amusing, scale. It's the powered features that make the toy's alternative energy appealing to kids. So what can these things do?
Playing with Fastronauts
The Fastronaut characters can all talk. When enough energy has been generated in the dynamo, an LED lights up that tells kids they can press the speaker button to hear some astronaut talk. The rest of the fun stuff resides in the Fastronauts' rides.
The figures fit into two different space vehicles: The hand-rolled moon cruiser and the bike-speedometer rocket. The cruiser's dynamo spins with the vehicle's own wheels, while the rocket's dynamo spins with a front bike wheel. Each one generates "vroom" noises from a tail speaker and has LED tail lights. The rocket also has a speedometer and an odometer that tells kids how far and how fast they're biking.
The fact that all of this is powered by human energy, and not pair after pair of landfill-destined batteries, makes Fastronauts an eco-friendly toy. But aside from the kinetic-energy angle, there are some who question the overall Earth-friendly nature of the device. The biggest question has to do with the injection-molded plastic shell that makes the toy so cute. Plastic is not a terribly green substance. Still, the shell is recyclable, so as long as people dispose of Fastronauts properly after the kids get bored of them, at least the toys won't end up in the landfill.
Plus, the toy isn't even close to production yet. It's just a design. By the time a toy company decides to pick it up for production, "biodegradable plastics" could be a more common material for toys.
In any event, the toy's alternative-energy connection is certainly the big draw for the Greener Gadgets judges and for eco-minded parents. But Fastronauts do have benefits beyond the green. With childhood obesity becoming an increasingly serious health problem in the United States, any toy that runs on kids' motion is a welcome addition to the toy world.
For more information on Fastronauts, the Greener Gadgets Design Competition and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Chino, Mike. "FASTRONAUTS: Action Figures Powered By Play." Inhabitots. Feb. 17, 2009.http://www.inhabitots.com/2009/02/17/fastronauts-action-figures-powered-by-play/
- Dynamo™ the Kinetic Flashlight. Edmund Scientifics.http://scientificsonline.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_3081554
- Paculdo, Sara. "Fastronauts - Powered By Play." Greener Gadgets Design Competition. Core77.http://www.core77.com/greenergadgets/entry.php?projectid=25
- Shandrow, Kim Lachance. "Fastronauts: speedometers for kids." Super Eco. Feb. 5, 2009.http://www.supereco.com/news/2009/02/05/fastronauts-speedometers-for-kids/
- So, Adrienne. "Power From the People: Converting Your Kinetic Energy Into Electricity." Wired Magazine. Oct. 23, 2007.http://www.wired.com/cars/energy/magazine/15-11/st_power