The foundation of a prosperous global economy is an energy system that is reliable, resilient and accessible. Today, more than two billion people living without secure access to power, while increasing urbanisation, extreme weather events place current infrastructures under increasing strain.
The incumbent linear economy is reliant on finite resources and highly wasteful, not only in the sense of material consumption – 95% of original raw material value is lost annually in Europe according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent Growth Within report – but also in terms of the energy that goes into creating products.
Too often the energy debate is reduced to an opposition between fossil fuels and renewables. The challenges in constructing an effective system that can be prosperous in the long-term go well beyond a discussion that is only about source.
More promising is the widespread adoption of positive technologies, including rooftop solar panels and electric cars. Still, even these innovations act more as a substitution for the incumbent technologies, rather than challenging the underlying systemic paradigms.
“AMIE” is a new initiative launched by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). AMIE, which stands for Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy, optimises two large energy flows – transport and housing – into one. The project takes advantage of the latest technological innovations to create an interconnected energy system between a solar-powered building and natural gas-powered hybrid electric vehicle. It was developed from the idea that a personal vehicle, which is used less than three hours per day on average, could play a role in powering homes, which account for 41% of total energy use.
The systemic aspect sets AMIE apart and is what the ORNL hope will make the concept catalytic. Roderick Jackson, the lead on this project, told Circulate, “AMIE is about moving beyond incremental change, and hopes to demonstrate something truly disruptive, it is an illustration of one possible future for energy, designed to provoke new thinking”.
The whole system is enabled by a new wireless technology developed by ORNL, which enables power to flow in both directions between the vehicle and building, meaning that the vehicle can help to power the house during peak energy use periods that don’t coincide with peak solar times. The same system then charges the vehicle. The efficiency of the wireless system reportedly reaches 85% and it is designed to work both as a complement to the grid and independently.
The home, which was developed in conjunction with architectural company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is 210sq feet and looks a little “space age” with a single room including a micro kitchen, designed to showcase conceptual potential. A 3.2 kW solar photovoltaic system is fitted and integrated into the structure of the building, which connects with an electric vehicle battery system for storage.
The utility vehicle runs off an electric hybrid power train, using natural gas to extend range. It’s 5.5 kW engine/generator is optimised for providing power to small buildings and to enable the natural gas, range extension element. The car is designed to store self-generated power, as Martin Kellier, a member of the energy and environmental sciences team at ORNL says, “When you drive down an interstate at 65 MPH, you produce enough electricity to power two houses”.
Besides the optimisation and integration of two large energy flows into one, the project also explored the potential of 3D-printing as new production method. Carbon fibre-reinforced ABS composite was used as the material for printing around 30% of the vehicles components, and 80% of the house. The material aspect is a key part of the system. Additive manufacturing is less wasteful than other construction techniques and Jackson was quick to point out the potential in the area with 3D-printing developments enabling the use of biomaterials and other innovations in the future.
Of course, there are still significant opportunities to develop and refine the demonstrator designs. For example, the current concept utility vehicle is still missing significant performance characteristics being limited in terms of its range (35 miles for city driving) and speed (60 MPH max). There are also opportunities to trial different engines, including the possibility of incorporating biofuels or fuel cell technology, and utilising advanced storage options like flow batteries.
Jackson argues that rapid innovation is central to the philosophy behind AMIE, which was conceived, designed and constructed in the space of just nine months, “The challenges we face can’t wait for the innovation cycles that currently exist for our buildings and vehicles energy ecosystem”.
That’s where the versatility and speed of 3D-printing is a further advantage, allowing construction teams to skip the limitation of traditional building techniques, and to design and trial different elements without slowing down development.
The current version is not designed to be the final product, but rather one part of a continuing cycle of innovation, deliberately provocative of new thinking. ORNL openly welcome critiques of the current version of the project, presenting it in the public domain at select events, the next of which is the International Builders Show, Las Vegas in January.
“We hope that this project inspires others to ask ‘what if’ and use technology to drive innovation”, Jackson said, “The success of AMIE will be defined by how many new versions follow on from it and how quickly we are able to effectively innovate. When will see AMIE 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and so on…” His point is that even as ideas are adopted and reach the market, versatile and nimble innovation will still be an important part of a future energy system.
Discussion of marketability may be premature for a project that is basically a combining of big ideas and still needs a significant period refinement and optimisation. However, the potential impact of greater connectivity and integration in mobility and built environment energy streams is enormous.
ORNL are not the only group to identify it as an opportunity. A startup, called Inventev, based in Detroit, goes a part of the way towards integration delivering, “mobile power generation, using an innovative Plug-in-Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) commercial truck architecture.” The commercial opportunity identified by Inventev is the combination of power provision and a working truck for building sites.
AMIE is an attempt to rethink the way in which we generate and consume energy, moving towards a system that optimises flows and performance, uses materials more effectively and is less wasteful and cheaper. Still ORNL’s work is deliberately meant to be just the start of this important conversation, a catalyst and trigger for something larger.