Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How did Gandhi’s charka save the world?

The G word of the week is in honor of a most remarkable person - Mahatma Gandhi. We all know of his non-violent resistance to British colonialism and his efforts for independence in India. What is not known is that Gandhi was the father of the green movement long before modern opportunist politicians joined this band wagon. A Google search of Gandhi plus Sustainability yields over 250,000 links. Ghandi had proposed that fifty million rural Indian households have Charkas or spinning wheels to produce yarn that in turn would lift these households out of poverty. The Charka is a device that is powered by a foot pedal and Gandhi spent quite a bit of time operating his own charka and was often photographed at his charka.

Ghandi used the symbol of the charka as that of Indian self reliance and the Congress Party of India still uses the charka on their political party flag. Almost sixty years have passed since India gained independence yet the charka is still being used in millions of rural homes. The charka is now being retrofitted with a small electric generator so that the device can not only spin yarn but also generate electricity for lighting the homes of poor villagers. The e-charka as it is now known is connected to a battery while the villager spins yarn and the stored energy is in turn used to power LED lights in the home. Two hours of pedalling an e-charka provides sufficient energy to light the home for 8 hours. The LEDs are replacing kerosene lamps that were traditionally used in rural homes in India. I had jokingly suggested that US provide its prison population that now totals some two million inmates with stationary bikes that have a generator attached. Prisoners need exercise and turning their exercise into green energy may be more useful than most of the present prison practices.

A human with a 2,000 calorie diet is consuming approximately 100 watts of power on a 24 by 7 basis. When we exercise and burn calories, part of the energy consumed is emitted as heat from our bodies but a fraction can actually be harnessed as useful energy. On a stationery bike we could generate approximately 50 watts of energy if the pedals were connected to a generator. The Indian villager that is powering the e-charka is likely not breaking a massive sweat and is engaging in more moderate exercise. I estimate that they are generating something like 15 watts of pedal powered electricity. If the yarn spinning activity is for two hours a day the villager will generate a total 30 watt hours each day. As the LED is ten times more efficient in emitting light than an incandescent light bulb the villager will have generated sufficient electricity to light the home with the radiance equal to one 40 watt incandescent light bulb. A lot of work for a little amount of light but the e-charka has the benefit of producing yarn as well as keeping the villager fit.

Perhaps one of the major US political parties could trade in their symbol of the elephant or the donkey for an e-charka and we too may enjoy energy independence. Better still old Alfalfa and the Governator should try powering their private jets with charkas. I wonder how Arne would pronounce the word Charka.

3 comments:

  1. I think it would be a great add-on type option if people could use 'pedal power' to power TV or better yet, computer games! Parents all over would rejoice at the prospect of their children earning their electronic time through exercise! Sony - I challenge you!
    Of course, Ed Begley demonstrated this on TV by hooking up batteries to a bike and exercised to power his morning toast!

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  2. Hi Catherine yeah the world needs pedal power rather than putting the pedal to the metal certainly we can keep our i phones charged by pedal power. thanks for reading my blog Lindsay

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  3. Last spring I collaborated with a troupe of high schoolers in writing a green theater piece. The show was powered by a solar generator that ran the LED stage lights and sound system. The show toured a little bit, but we didn't have a biodiesel truck to haul the thing. Needs a little more investment for that. Funded in part by a grant by BP and PG&E.
    The story took place in a prison housing energy-criminals, and their time was spent generating energy on exercise bikes and other contraptions. The bikes actually did power a couple little lights, and the intention was to tag them into the solar generator batteries.
    A funny story. The generator now helps teach hundreds of high school science students in green energy, testing just how long the generator lasts, how long to charge, it's power limitations, and all the fun associated with a 170Watt solar panel.
    I've been re-inspired by your blog to look once again at the hydrogen hybrid adaptation to the gasoline engine.
    I look forward to your posts.

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