As soldiers, hikers and students can testify, it takes energy to haul around a heavy backpack. Now, researchers have developed a backpack...

WASHINGTON — As soldiers, hikers and students can testify, it takes energy to haul around a heavy backpack. Now, researchers have developed a backpack that turns that energy into electricity.

It doesn’t crank out a lot of juice — a bit more than 7 watts — but that’s enough to run things such as an MP3 player, a personal-data assistant, night-vision goggles, a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) or a cellphone. The development eventually could allow field scientists, hikers, explorers, soldiers and disaster workers to produce their own electricity.

The researchers used a backpack fastened to the carrying frame by springs. The up-and-down motion caused by walking powers a small generator, producing electricity that can be used directly or stored in a capacitor or battery. Development of the device by Lawrence Rome of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues is reported in today’s issue of the journal Science.

The electricity-generating frame weighs about 10 pounds, Rome said. He is working to lighten it, so it will weigh only a couple of pounds more than a standard backpack.

Power generated increases as the load in the backpack gets heavier, he said. Tests ranged from loads of about 40 pounds to about 80 pounds.

Rome developed the backpack at the request of the Office of Naval Research, which was looking for ways to reduce the need for service members to carry lots of batteries to power equipment while on duty in Afghanistan. “These guys go to war with 80 pounds on their backs and they may also need 20 pounds of batteries to power a GPS, communication devices and night-vision goggles,” he said.

The researchers studied the movement of people walking and concluded that the hips move up and down between 1.6 inches and 2.7 inches with each step. They then set about trying to exploit that movement.

The result is the “suspended load backpack.” It uses a rigid frame similar to regular backpacks, but instead of being attached directly to the frame, the load is suspended by springs, allowing it to move up and down as the person walks. That movement turns a small electrical generator producing current. In tests on a treadmill, walking on level ground and uphill both produced current.

Arthur Kuo of the University of Michigan’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering said the backpack is novel “because it generates useful amounts of electrical power, while costing less metabolic power than would be expected.”

A company called Lightning Packs has been formed to improve the suspended-load backpack and to develop an ergonomic backpack based on the prototype. Lightning Packs has applied for patents on both inventions.

Rome said he hopes to have the new version ready for testing in six months to a year.

Material from Knight Ridder Newspapers is included in this report