It's just about impossible not to notice Chris Niezrecki's bicycle during a nighttime visit to the University of Florida in Gainesville. That's because it glows in the dark.
Niezrecki is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the university, and when he first arrived on campus a couple of years ago he couldn't help but notice how many students tooled around the college town at night on their bikes.
He also couldn't help but notice that sometimes, it was hard to see them.
So he came up with a novel idea that has already set some bike manufacturers' minds spinning.
Why not, Niezrecki thought, build a bicycle that glows in the dark?
"It seemed like there was a need for something like this because it's very difficult to see bikes in the dark," he says.
So he teamed up with two undergraduate mechanical engineering students and set to work on the project. The team won a $16,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, a six-year-old program sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation to foster the entrepreneurial spirit at colleges and universities across the country.
Students Gregory Yoder and Matthew Young were given a pretty tough challenge. The system had to be very energy efficient, and it couldn't produce heat that could harm the rider.
So they had to come up with a cold light source that could run off of two or three small batteries.
The team turned to the same technology that is used to light the face of a watch, called electro-luminescence.
"It's a basic technology," Niezrecki says. The system uses a phosphorus material, available commercially in sheets. When a low voltage current is passed across the material, the electricity excites the phosphor and causes it to emit light.
To build their glowing bike, the students cut circles out of the phosphorus material and glued them to the rims. Then they glued more of the stuff to the frame of the bike. A separate 9-volt battery supplies the current to each wheel and the frame.
The effect is so startling that "if you're 600 feet away you can easily tell it's a bike," Niezrecki says.
The invention has created somewhat of a sensation on the Florida campus.
"No one has really seen anything like it before," he adds. "It's just really cool. You've got this whole bike and it's lit up. It's just really neat."
The typical reaction, he says, is "Wow, where can I get one."
The answer is, nowhere, just yet.
But the university is negotiating with manufacturers interested in licensing the use of the technology. A patent is pending. There doesn't seem to be any lack of interest, Niezrecki says.
The bike was demonstrated at a trade show in Las Vegas a month ago, and "people wanted to buy it right then," he adds.
But the only thing available so far is the prototype, which cost about $15,000 to build. Niezrecki believes that mass produced, the system should cost about $70 per bike, and it could be attached to any bike.
It takes about 10 hours to run the three batteries down, he says, but that endurance can be tripled if the system is made to blink rather than run continuously. The researchers are trying now to build a system that runs off of just one battery, and it might be possible to add a small charger to the system so the battery can be recharged while the rider pedals around during daylight hours. But that's still a ways down the road.
The researchers are still compiling data to show that it's worth the extra cost and the very slight addition of weight to make a bike glow in the dark. They need to show, for example, that it's much easier for someone driving a car to see the bike, and recognize what it is.
That's a little harder if the driver is approaching from the rear, Niezrecki says, but from the side, there's little doubt.
Two wheels, glowing brightly, and the glowing frame of a bike, leave little question about what that strange apparition is.
It sounds like the perfect gift for the college student who really, really wants to be noticed.