A project of the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Laboratory, this 3D-printed concept house can send power its own electric vehicle, and the vehicle can return the favor.

The US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has unveiled a futuristic prototype that unites home and vehicle, and we don’t mean they’ve designed a nuclear RV.

Rather, they’ve created a small shelter and a vehicle — one elegantly modern, the other comically utilitarian — that are built in the same factory and share a common power grid. At the core of the project is the world’s largest 3D printer, and the technical term for that printing process gives the project the name AMIE, which stands for Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy.

The second half of AMIE’s name refers to a microgrid with two storage batteries that connects home and car. The house, through solar panels, charges a battery underneath its front porch. The car, when it makes forays into civilization, takes on a little natural gas to charge up its own battery, which then powers electric motors to drive it. When the car arrives home, it parks over a wireless bi-directional charging station, and if the day has been cloudy or home energy demands high, the car’s battery powers the house and charges its back-up batteries. If there’s excess energy in the home battery, it can charge up the car. Both can be connected to the public power grid, if it’s available.

The vehicle, unveiled in September at ORNL’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Industry Day, is two tons of technology built around carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic composite material, which makes up about 30 percent of the vehicle and took about 20 hours to print. (For those that question the wisdom of 3D printing a vehicle, ORNL 3D printed a Shelby Cobra from scratch earlier this year, and presented it at the Detroit auto show.) It resembles a military ute as drawn from memory, but the design isn’t particularly important that this point. “The vehicle design was focused around a robust research platform,” says Scott Curran, R&D Staff Member in ORNL’s Fuels & Engines Research Group. “In the near future, ORNL will be investigating the use of external combustion engines, particularly Stirling engines, which can produce electricity from any fuel source.” High efficiency internal combustion engines with biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells and advanced energy storage devices including flow batteries and consumable batteries are also on the table. As currently configured, the car battery runs a single traction motor with a transmission to the rear wheels, giving the car a range of 35 miles on electric-only, with a top speed of 60 mph. But all that’s modifiable, as are the fenders (see “3D printed a Shelby Cobra,” supra).

The companion home is a stark white oblong box, with segments that make it look a bit like a giant loaf of Wonder Bread. Each cross-section — the bread slice — has all functions integrated into the structure, including windows, exterior cladding, super-efficient insulation, roof solar panels, the electrical network, and interior finishes. Specialized lighting and appliances can be integrated as needed. Eighty percent of the house is composed of the same ABS composite as the car, and it took about four weeks to print the 210-square-foot structure. The roof has a slight arch, a beautiful detail provided by the architectural team from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, who add AMIE to a portfolio that includes the world’s tallest building, among many, many others.

The arch notwithstanding, individual sections of AMIE could be bolted on to lengthen the structure, though the concept was sized to fit on a standard mobile home chassis provided by project partner Clayton Homes. The design itself is the latest in the line of ultra-efficient concept homes to come from the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design, and the project brought together more than 20 partnering companies including GE FirstBuild, which provided the concept with microkitchen. It contains a sink, refrigerator, oven, stovetop, dishwasher, Murphy-style day bed and touch screen console; one suspects it will be rolled out in Manhattan before AMIE goes full-scale.

As cutting-edge as the physical objects are, it’s the microgrid that makes AMIE groundbreaking, though it’s not the first time a scenario like this has been envisioned. Elon Musk’s Powerwall home batteries are designed to capture energy from home solar arrays, and can be used to charge your Tesla X. And as far back as 2012, Nissan announced the “Leaf to Home” power supply system, in which their Leaf electric vehicle could swap charge with an in-house grid. But AMIE envisions car and home as one easy-to-use system. “The wireless power system for AMIE is the world’s first Level 2 (6.6kW) bi-directional system designed and built,” says Burak Ozpineci, ORNL Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Group Leader. The power transfer system uses a resonant technology that allows higher efficiencies through larger gaps, for an efficiency of around 85 percent. It’s energy where you need it, when you need it.

Rapid prototyping, intelligent energy usage, and low-waste construction are ORNL’s vision of the future. Nice to know we can get there in a plastic Jeep.

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