John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The "Cowolt" would use cattle's body heat to charge phones and lamps.
In some strange future, recharging your phone might not mean reaching for an outlet, but for a cow. That's if the "Cowolt" ever takes off: a conceptual vest for ruminants that transforms body heat into a battery charge.
It might be hard to refrain from guffawing when spying the cow in the above video model the two-piece jacket. But the people who dreamed it up, Liva Kallite and Netta Korhonen at Helsinki's Aalto University School of Arts, Design, and Architecture, have serious intentions.
Their main point is that while roughly 1.2 billion people worldwide have no reliable electricity, they may be rich in other, more bovine resources. If the tech exists to hack these animals, it could provide an energy source that's less polluting than kerosene and easier to install than solar panels.
The exact details of their plan are murky, but they involve enhancing cows with an array of thermoelectric modules. The difference between the creatures' internal temperature of about 102 degrees and cooler, ambient air would then create electricity via the Seebeck effect. They estimate a vest could charge a 12-volt battery in 26 hours on the power of one robo-cow, at which point the animal would be depleted and you'd have to eat it. (Kidding—cattle warmth is a renewable resource.)
It all sounds far-fetched, but any idea to pull humanity out of darkness is laudable. Writes Raimo Nikkanen, an industrial-design professor at Aalto University:
With Cowolt-harvested energy people are able to power small scale devices, phones, radios and lamps. This might be the key to improve not only communication but also healthcare, education and other beneficial aspects of human life in developing countries. It could solve a lot of problems, offer people some self-sufficiency and improve the quality of life.