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Phuket student designing a human-powered fitness gym

DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY: British International School, Phuket (BISP) Year 12 student Cynthia Richardin, 17, is a budding engineer working on a self-sustaining, self-powering fitness gym as part of her ongoing IB (International Baccalaureate) studies at the school.

By Steven Layne

Sunday 13 March 2016, 06:53AM

Inspired from an early age by her father, a mechanical and software engineer, Cynthia learned the value of getting “hands on” by helping him with various projects around the family home – building dog houses, plant stands and fixing water systems, to name a few.

A personal love for cars led her to the idea of re-purposing an alternator.

“I’ve always been interested in cars and how they work. Fortunately [BISP Design and Technology Teacher] Mr Craigen had an alternator, which I decided to put to use for my project. Since I like physics and electricity, it all just clicked together,” says Cynthia.

Spun by a car engine belt, an alternator is what supplies electricity to charge a car’s battery, and in turn powers the vehicle’s lights, the stereo and other electrical systems. But in order to have output, the alternator needs input.

“We were talking about gyms, and the amount of sweating people at the gym. We call it ‘sandwich to pie power’,” laughs Mr Craigen.

Cynthia explains: “A sandwich goes in one end, but nothing comes out the other end. People are getting fit, but think of all that energy they’re putting into the machine that we could actually be using as a resource... certainly for lighting the gym.”

The theory was a no-brainer: recover the otherwise wasted energy from a typical work-out, and use it to generate electricity using a car alternator, which are abundant in Phuket.

However, Cynthia’s first pilot bicycle generator was unsuccessful, and she had to face and overcome the most important step in the design and technology process: failure.

“I could barely get any charge out of it, no matter how hard I peddled. Something wasn’t right,” she says.

Reviewing the mechanics of an alternator, Cynthia and Mr Craigen realised that the reason why the alternator wasn’t producing any useful current was due its electro-magnetic nature, which requires an initial trickle current to start spinning the alternator to a certain speed. 

The simple solution, therefore, was to add a second starting battery to the circuit.

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Voila, the final output of Cynthia’s new-and-improved bicycle generator proved to be productive enough to justify the additional battery, and with the clever welding and electrical circuitry work of BISP’s two design technology technicians, Jaroon Boriboon and Teerasak Yaodum, the bicycle generator proved to not only be able to keep the two batteries topped up, but power lights and an inverter for real time mains power.

The next step for Cynthia is calculating exactly how much power her generator can generate, and converting this data into laymen’s terms, perhaps the second most important step in the design and technology process – defining your product and justifying it commercially.

Mr Craigen has been at BISP since 2009, joining from Dubai where he had set up design technology in a new build school on the outskirts of the emirate. In the seven years since, he has – working in the last year closely with Design Technology Coordinator Malcolm Perry – developed a new way of looking at the subject in a school environment.

“What we’ve done is taken the old, traditional ‘shop’ class concept, and made it more practical and integrated with the other core subjects,” says Mr Craigen.

“We apply the knowledge from all the students’ other courses, while also adding electronics, technical drawing, metal, wood and plastics work.

“Before, kids in shop or woodwork class were just taught to make boxes, pretty much to the point that it was all a pointless exercise.

“Now the focus is all moving towards sustainability, and our goal is to combine all these disciplines and skills to create something useful in the end. Here, I’ve drawn the line – we don’t make boxes, we produce products, useful products.”

Indeed, Mr Craigen and his colleague Mr Perry are currently leading BISP students in developing a range of useful products and sustainability solutions, including passive solar stills, bio-filters, solar water boilers, and condo-friendly hydroponics pods.

The next great innovation may just be a bike ride away.

For more information about the Design and Technology programme at British International School, Phuket (BISP), please visit www.bisphuket.ac.th or contact Malcolm Perry (mperry@ bisphuket.ac.th) or Jeff Craigen (jcraigen@bisphuket.ac.th).

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