A team of MIT undergraduate students has invented a shock absorber that harnesses energy from small bumps in the road, generating electricity while it smoothes the ride more effectively than conventional shocks.

Senior Shakeel Avadhany and his teammates say they can produce up to a 10 percent improvement in overall vehicle fuel efficiency by using the regenerative shock absorbers, according to a statement released by the university this week.

"We wanted to figure out where energy is being wasted in a vehicle," senior Zack Anderson explains. Some hybrid cars already do a good job of recovering the energy from braking, so the team looked elsewhere, and quickly homed in on the suspension.

They began by renting a variety of different car models, outfitting the suspension with sensors to determine the energy potential, and driving around with a laptop computer recording the sensor data. Their tests showed "a significant amount of energy" was being wasted in conventional suspension systems, Anderson says, "especially for heavy vehicles."

They built prototype shocks to harness the wasted power. The setup forces fluid through a turbine attached to a generator. The system is controlled by an active electronic system that optimizes the damping, providing a smoother ride than conventional shocks while generating electricity to recharge the batteries or operate electrical equipment.

"This is a disruptive technology," Anderson says. "It's a game-changer."

The students filed for a patent last year and formed a company, Levant Power Corp., to develop and commercialize the product. They hope to initially find customers among companies that operate large fleets of heavy vehicles. They have already drawn interest from the U.S. military and several truck manufacturers, the statement said.