Another Use For Bicycles: Solving Serious Problems

When most of us think of bicycles, we think of riding for transportation, for recreation, or for racing. Bicycles are generally seen as a way to travel from one place to another.

We see bicycles as reducing pollution by replacing motorized vehicles with clean, nearly silent vehicles. We envision health benefits associated with riding a bike versus riding in motorized transportation.

Cycling is good for the heart, it keeps the muscles strong and it reduces stress, among other things. It is also a great way to elevate one’s mood.

Using bicycles as transport is also a good way to reduce congestion, especially in urban areas. Bicycles are smaller than cars, take up less space on the roads, and are easier to park.

Bicycles are a good way for families to spend time together while getting some exercise. Toddlers can be towed along by parents and older children can ride their own bikes. This activity has the added benefit of introducing kids to cycling at an early age, which may result in a desire to ride a bike later in life.

While it’s not often thought of in a car-centric society, cycling can be very romantic. There’s something very down to earth about a couple riding their bikes in a beautiful, naturalistic setting, such as a along a beach, and watching the sunset together. This puts them at peace with nature and in harmony with one another.

These are the typical things we associate with bicycles. But there is something else, rarely thought about, perhaps because it’s less well known.

I’m referring to bicycles as a means to solving problems. As some cyclists and non-cyclists know, bicycles can and have been used to harness energy.

In such cases, the energy from a cyclist’s pedaling isn’t used to move the cyclist from one place to another. Instead, it’s used to power something other than the bicycle.

One example of this can be seen in a recent invention developed by a group of high school students from Oakland Park, Florida. They invented a “collapsible, transportable, bicycle-powered emergency water-sanitation station that filters E. coli and other harmful pathogens from contaminated water.”

Essentially, a bicycle connected to a motor is used to charge a rechargeable battery, which “powers a pump that mixes untreated water with an ozone substance to sanitize it.” During an emergency, the water sanitation station can be assembled and disassembled in under an hour. It can also produce enough clean water to hydrate 20 to 30 people for a 15-hour period.

Fundraising was necessary to turn this idea into reality. Fortunately, a grant from a program run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology covered $9,750 of the cost.

MIT officials evaluated the project and decided to nominated it for the White House Science Fair. This project was one of 30 projects chosen for display at the recent science fair.

The idea for the water sanitation station was conceived when a student observed how unsanitary conditions were during a post-earthquake visit to Haiti. She saw people and farm animals drinking out of a trough where they were also bathing and washing clothes. Certainly, water dispensed and used in such a manner couldn’t be very clean.

What’s most amazing about this story is that when their project was displayed at the White House, President Obama agreed to ride the bicycle to charge the battery. He mounted the bicycle, the rear wheel of which was attached to a stand much like a trainer.

For a few minutes the president pedaled vigorously in front of the press and delighted students who explained how everything worked. Once the students had finished explaining the water sanitation system to him, the president decided that the battery was sufficiently charged, so he stopped pedaling and dismounted.

From a project like this, a few things come to mind: Unlike motorized vehicles, bicycles do not use energy, they create energy. They are self-sustaining and rather than depleting resources, they create resources.

Overall, bicycles are underappreciated by the general public. Perhaps projects like the portable water sanitation station, which can be powered by a common everyday device like a bicycle will make the utility and versatility of bicycles more readily apparent — or at least make more people think about them.


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