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Exercise for electricity at UK

Here's a new technology that gives a whole new dimension to the phrase "student power." We will resist references to hamsters on a wheel:

Expending a little energy on an exercise machine at the University of Kentucky can now mean you're also generating energy.

Some of the elliptical trainers at the Bernard M. Johnson Student Recreation Center have been altered so the user's leg and arm motion creates electricity that is used to augment the juice coming from a coal-fired power plant.

It's not much electricity in the greater scheme of things, but the byproducts are sweat and stronger hearts, not strip-mined land and greenhouse gases.

The machines are on a long list of things the university touts as moves toward sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint. The list ranges from environmentally friendly building construction to recycling cooking oil from the dining halls.

The exercise machines were altered in January. After a few adjustments, they've been running well — and offsetting part of the center's monthly utility bill — for about three weeks.

UK was only the second university in the country to install the power-generating devices on exercise equipment, said Ron Lee, campus recreation director.

The first was the University of Florida, which had an inside track because the device was developed by a former student.

Hudson Harr, 23, is president of ReRev.com (he says he has started seven companies, five of which barely broke even but were great learning experiences). Harr has applied for a patent for his device, which is called ReCardio.

Lee said he had often looked around at all the activity in the "cardio" area of the Johnson Center and thought "how great it would be" if all that motion could be harnessed.

He found out about the Florida machines last year at a meeting of his counterparts from around the Southeastern Conference.

Oregon State University has since added the machines. Glen Johansen, who handles sales for ReRev.com, says the company is negotiating to install them at the University of Oregon.

The UK system cost $11,000 to adapt 14 ellipticals. The Johnson Center expects to shave about $80 a month off its electric bill, which runs from $6,000 to $8,000 a month.

It is estimated that the ReCardio devices will pay for themselves in eight to 10 years, but Lee said that having them installed is about more than money.

"With a bigger push for sustainability and the environment, I think you're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing," he said. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg of what's going to happen in the next 20 years."

Elliptical machines were chosen because they don't require electricity to operate, but contain generators. The generators are there for the digital display and to run a small motor that changes the tilt of the machine.

The ReCardio device fits in the machine, drawing off the excess power as it is generated. A wire connects the machines to an inverter box that converts the direct current from the machines into alternating current that flows into the building's wiring.

Because the excess power from the generator normally would be dissipated as heat, converting it to electricity means less air conditioning is needed in the summer.

The inverter shows, in watts, how much juice is being produced.

Now that the system has been working well for a few weeks, Lee is thinking of ways to increase the output. In Florida, he said, the school has organized competitions among various groups to see who can generate the most power. UK will do that, too.

He also wants to find ways to encourage users to set the machines at a higher resistance level because more resistance equals more power.

Micah Douglas, a 22-year-old nursing student who was working out this week, said she is on the ellipticals for a few minutes at a time four to six times a week and would like to see the ReCardios on all the machines (Johansen at ReRev.com says that's not likely to happen for machines such as treadmills, which require a lot of electricity).

The Johnson Center also is used by faculty and staff members, such as Lisa Sibley, a human-resources employee.

"I wish we could get one of these machines in HR so we could work out there and save the university money," she said.

Their reactions are typical, Lee said. Users gravitate toward the ReCardio-equipped machines and pay attention to the small signs that tell them about the device.

"I was up here a couple of weeks ago, and there was a girl on her cell phone," Lee said. "She was saying 'You're not going to believe what I'm doing. I'm up here working out, and I'm creating electricity for the building."

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