Cyclists given wheel boost

A new bicycle wheel, developed by researchers at MIT, can store energy every time the rider puts on the brakes, and then give that power back to provide a boost when going uphill or to add a burst of speed in traffic.

But there are also a variety of extra functions hidden within the hub of the new wheel, which is designed to be easily interchangeable with any standard bicycle’s rear wheel.

By using a series of sensors and a Bluetooth connection to the user’s iPhone, which can be mounted on the handlebars, the wheel can monitor the bicycle’s speed, direction and distance travelled, as well as picking up data on pollution in the air, and even the proximity of the rider’s friends.

The resulting data can help the individual rider – for example, by providing feedback on fitness goals – and help the city (if the user opts to share the information) by building up a database of air quality, popular biking routes or areas of traffic congestion.

All of the generating, power assisting, sensing and communications equipment fits inside a plastic housing in the hub of the wheel, connected to the standard rim by a novel system of spokes.

Dubbed the Copenhagen Wheel, it was developed by a team led by Carlo Ratti, associate professor of the practice in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the SENSEable City Laboratory.

The whole generating and power-assisting system can be controlled through the pedals, requiring no switches or dials. Pedal backwards, and the regenerative braking is engaged, helping to recharge the system’s batteries. Pedal fast, and the extra boost of power is generated. ‘Everything is controlled by your feet,’ Ratti explained.

There are a variety of bicycles on the market now that can provide an electrical boost, but Ratti said this one is different because of its extra functions, modern design and ease of use.

The city of Copenhagen, site of the UN Conference on Climate Change, has been a sponsor of the research (along with the Italian company Ducati and the Italian environment ministry) and the city has already placed an initial order for some of the innovative bicycle wheels, to be used by city workers.

The system was demonstrated in Copenhagen on 15 December for the benefit of conference attendees and for a gathering of 400 city mayors from around the world.