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Individuals like soldiers, hikers, emergency workers or even schoolchildren who must walk long distances while burdened with heavy backpacks or loads of tools could soon be helped by the availability of an ingenious product. The suspended-load backpack, invented by biology professor Lawrence C. Rome, takes a great deal of strain off the wearer's back, and at the same time uses the wearer's movement to generate electricity that can power their electrical devices.
Born in Boston in 1952, Rome earned an A.B. degree in biology from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, in 1974. He then entered Harvard University, where he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in this subject, graduating in 1981. He was later appointed Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
At UPENN and also at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Rome conducts research on muscular systems in fish and frogs: in particular, design and function for locomotion and sound production. Human beings, over the course of history, have come up with a number of methods for augmenting their natural locomotive abilities, by using simple tools such as walking sticks or ski poles to help them navigate difficult or steep terrain. Rome and his team have taken this notion to a more sophisticated, contemporary level with their high-tech idea to capitalize on the up-and-down motion of the body that occurs when a person is walking.
Using the concept of the external-frame backpack that was very popular decades ago with overnight backpackers, Rome's prototype similarly uses a rigid frame that attaches to the wearer's body with straps. A cloth compartment attached to this frame carries the load, which is suspended from the frame with vertically stretched springs.
When the person wearing the backpack walks, the load moves up and down on the springs at a delay relative to the movement of the person's hips, resulting in differential movement between the frame and the load. Mechanical energy results, which can be harnessed by a gear and tooth mechanism, attached to a generator. This generator produces electricity, which may be stored in an attached, rechargeable battery, or used to power devices such as music players, flashlights, GPS devices and the like. Rome and his team envision the pack helping to reduce the load of equipment that rescue workers and soldiers must carry, for example, since the power supply they might need to operate such critical devices like headlamps, GPS systems or PDAs could be reduced to just a couple of spare batteries.
To boot, during testing of the device, Rome and his team made some surprising discoveries. Testers were often naturally inclined to adjust their gait in such a way that the movement of the load on the pack became more efficient, and electricity was generated at a higher rate than the researchers had expected even while the wearers used the same or less metabolic energy. Carrying loads between 40 and 80 pounds, the wearers were able to generate around 7 Watts of electricity. Wearers could generate more electricity by either walking faster or carrying a heavier load.
Rome plans to commercialize various versions of the suspended-load backpack, which he developed with support of the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the National Institutes of Health. He founded Lightning Packs LLC in Pennsylvania to further develop the concept and has applied for patents on the packs' technology. As of this April 2006 writing, he hopes to be able to make Lightning Packs available to emergency workers within one year.