One Day, Your Cup of Coffee Could Charge Your Phone

A pair of students has proposed the idea of embedding furniture with pads to absorb latent heat and convert it into electricity

smithsonian.com

Most of us at least try to consider our energy savings. We turn our computers off when we’re not using them. The more diligent of us defrost our freezers to make them more efficient.

Yet energy is wasted all around us, all the time. That cooling cup of coffee? That’s heat energy being released into your dining table surface. The warmth of your laptop? More wasted energy.

It was with that in mind that two Copenhagen design students mocked up an idea, called “Heat Harvest.” Heat Harvest is a pad that can stand alone or be incorporated into a tabletop. The product captures heat from things like coffee cups and warm laptops and transfers it through a thermoelectric generator, which recycles it into electricity. This electricity could then be used to charge phones or other devices simply by placing them on the pad. A user could take a hot pot of soup from the stove and place it directly on a Heat Harvest-enabled tabletop, or install Heat Harvest pads beneath electronics, such as televisions and game consoles.

Though Heat Harvest is still speculative, the technology to recycle thermoelectric energy already exists. Scientists around the world have been experimenting with thermoelectricity capturing technologies for several years. Vodaphone even came up with a prototype of a sleeping bag that uses body heat to charge phones. Heat Harvest's creators, Sergey Komardenkov and Vihanga Gore, see their idea as a way of bringing this kind of technology to the domestic realm.

“[We] treat this idea as a conversation starter,” says Komardenkov.

Heat Harvest came out of Space10, a new IKEA-funded “future-living lab and exhibition space” in Copenhagen’s trendy meatpacking district. Space10’s mission is to explore sustainable living through design, and it carries this out by running workshops, lecture series, design residencies and exhibitions. The entire space is furnished with IKEA pieces, many of them “hacked.” (Finding alternative uses and configurations for IKEA furniture is a minor obsession among a certain segment of the design internet.) There’s a “hangout” space made of inflatable balls from IKEA’s children’s department, covered in fluffy white IKEA blankets, creating a soft snowscape to lounge on. Another featured hack is the “workstation for lazy people”—IKEA carts covered in pillows to resemble rolling cots, together with low tables outfitted with lamps made from mirrors and bowls.

Space10 and 12 students from the Copenhagen School of Interaction Design, a high-tech design school and consulting firm, came together for the design challenge that generated Heat Harvest. The students were paired off and asked to create an everyday object that could lead to healthier and more sustainable urban living.

Komardenkov, from Moscow, has a background in programming and database architecture. Gore, from Mumbai, is an exhibition and retail space designer. The two had two weeks to plan their idea and build a prototype. They spent the first part of that time on the streets of Copenhagen, interviewing people about what kinds of things they imagined as part of the sustainable home of the future. Then they read up about thermoelectricity and built their mockup, which shows what the technology might look like, but does not actually function ("Engineering-wise, we’re not savvy enough," Komardenkov admits, adding that they only had two weeks to complete the project). According to their research, a laptop uses about 40 watts of electricity and puts out about the same amount of energy in heat. In theory, most of this could be recycled—the laptop's own energy output going right back in. 

Other designs that came out of the project include a “smart faucet” to let shower-takers know how much water they’ve used up, a chair that won’t let you sit any longer than medically recommended and a device that automatically opens and closes your windows based on inside and outside air quality.

While there are no immediate plans to bring Heat Harvest to market, Komardenkov and Gore say they imagine such technology may be part of homes of the future. With the climate talks in Paris underway, the world’s eyes are on sustainable technologies more than ever.

“The future is definitely not that far,” Gore says. 

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