Breaking the Mold - Part I

Breaking the Mold – Part I

There are different ways that innovation can come about. It can be the result of a single individual hatching a great idea. It may even be a single stroke of brilliance – like the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, who cracked the mystery of the ring structure of benzene because he had a daydream of six snakes in a circle each biting the next snake’s tail – although even the stroke of brilliance usually requires both years of preparation and determined follow-up. Nonetheless, this is the perhaps the most romantic vision of innovation, the one many of us like to imagine as the source of great discoveries.

At the other end of the scale, innovation can grow out of a large, coordinated effort by a diverse group of people and organizations working together to accomplish something really difficult. It may not be as romantic, but it can be stunningly effective.  The US space program of the 1960’s, which sought to land humans on the moon, is a classic example. It produced a wide range of discoveries, inventions, and technological advancements – from freeze-dried foods to the integrated circuit that was at the heart of the entire computer revolution and the resulting digital age – because the goal was so difficult and so complex that multiple, intensive paths of research and development were required. The task yielded so much benefit because it was grand in scale and was adequately funded to tackle that scale. That sort of effort often requires a government agency or a large non-profit foundation to drive it, both to supply funding and to attract the participation of individuals and private enterprises that have the know-how and the innovative personnel to accomplish various aspects of the task.

Which brings us to the AMIE project. The Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy demonstration project is a research initiative of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that has brought to flower a boatload of technological advancements. It consists of a house and a car, both (mostly) 3-D printed from carbon fiber composite, that can share energy from one to the other, and would enable the occupant to live for some time unconnected to the power grid. The pair were completed in September, 2015, but they are just the first phase, and the project is ongoing.

According to Roderick Jackson, ORNL’s Group Leader, Building Envelope Systems Research, and project leader for AMIE, “This project was really about asking questions. What if we did buildings totally differently, if we didn’t build them the same way we’ve built them for centuries? What if we were not constrained, what if buildings and cars could share energy together? How, from the laboratory, can we address this? And how do you do it fast? Because these are challenges we face today, not 20 years from now.”

Another set of questions central to the project revolve around energy. “We know we have some challenges with energy infrastructure,” explains Jackson. “We’re very reliant on energy, so the need for a reliable, resilient source of energy is there. Every time we have an “event,” that’s the overarching need. How do we integrate our energy system? How do we diversify our energy portfolio in a way that gives us the resilience? What about the fact that we have vehicles that we only use for a very small portion of the day? What if we use those vehicles as an additional energy source?”

So the project is taking a leading-edge position in researching and developing: energy storage systems, electricity transfer systems, 3-D printing technology and technique, sustainable building construction, and rapid architectural and automotive prototyping. It’s got 20 private sector partners from a variety of industries contributing both their know-how and their innovative thinkers who can take the know-how further.

The vehicle is a hybrid electric car; its fossil fuel source is natural gas. The car is driven by electrical power, which can either be drawn from a large battery, or generated by a natural gas-powered engine. Both body and frame were 3-D printed from a composite of ABS plastic, with 20% carbon fiber content in the form of short, individual fibers.

The house is a very basic, in one sense: a single-room structure, not unlike a mobile home in size. It is constructed of a series of 2-foot wide, ring-shaped structural facade panels, 3-D printed from the same ABS/carbon fiber composite.

The car/house combination has two main external sources of energy, and three main ways to store it. It has a 3.2 Kw solar photovoltaic system on the roof of the building that can generate electricity. As noted above, the vehicle has a natural gas-powered electric generator.

The house has a large battery underneath that can store electricity. The vehicle also has a large battery that can store electricity. Vehicle and building can transfer electricity from one to the other through a two-way wireless charging (induction) system. (This bi-directional wireless charging system, by the way, is one of the big advancements that came out of the project.) This gives the system great flexibility. During the day, the solar cells can charge both the house and car batteries, as well as supplying immediate power needs. The car adds storage capacity, and electricity can be used by either the car or the house, as need dictates. If the need arises, the car’s gas engine could generate power for the house, too. Moreover, there’s an intelligent control system that decides which way the power has to be moving at any time for maximum efficiency.

The car/house system has a third major way to store energy: the building itself. The composite shell is very well insulated. It uses Vacuum Insulation Panels made by Nanopore, Inc. These consist of a foam with gas-filled pores so small that the exhibit the Knudsen effect, which eliminates convection and drastically reduces thermal conductivity. The foam has very low solid phase conductivity, and contains infrared opacifiers to reduce radiant heat transfer. This foam is sealed under vacuum between sheets of metalized plastic film. The resulting package is a ridiculously good insulator. Common fiberglass batts have an insulating performance of R=3.7 per inch of fiberglass thickness. The Vacuum Insulation Panel has R=36 per inch. These insulators line the insides of the composite panels, and make the building capable of storing its heat energy very effectively. The manufacturer found a way to halve the cost of these panels, another significant innovation.

Next week, Part II: how it was made.

Images via ORNL, except as noted