Between Foster + Partners’ vision for robot-assembled astronaut pied-à-terres on Mars and humanitarian relief shelters made from intricately layered earthen gunk, September was quite the active month in the wonderful — and certainly never dull — world of 3-D printing technology.

And while it doesn’t revolve around indigenous materials like the aforementioned projects, the Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy (AMIE) research demonstration unveiled last week at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, is certainly an exciting eye-opener when considering the potential of building homes — and cars, too, in this case — with the assistance of large-scale 3-D printers.

While the application of advanced 3-D printing technology to both residential architecture and car design played a central role in the development and execution of AMIE, the project, first and foremost, revolved around the blissful and (mostly) fossil fuel-free marriage of electric hybrid vehicles and solar-powered homes.

We’ve previously taken a gander at a deep green concept dwelling that generates enough juice via renewable energy systems to fully power itself and the plug-in EV parked in the garage (a Honda Fit, in that specific instance). But what about an electric hybrid vehicle in which power flows back into a home as part of a fully integrated energy system? An advanced — and hugely symbiotic — arrangement in which both vehicle and home function as one single entity?

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration. Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory /flickr

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration.Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory /flickr

An “all-in-one-solution” geared to “change the way we think about generating, storing and using electrical power” is what ORNL researchers displayed last week: two typically segregated energy streams, building and transportation, that can indeed be conjoined, working together in synergy to keep both the lights on and engine running. When the sun is elusive and the rooftop solar panels need a helping hand, the car can supply the home with supplementary energy via wireless bi-directional charging technology. If the sun is shining bright and the natural gas-powered vehicle’s battery needs a boost, excess solar power flowing from the home charges it right up.

Cozy little arrangement, right?

For the design of the prototype structure, ORNL teamed with venerable, skyscraper-specializing (One World Trade Center, Willis Tower, Burj Khalifa, half the Atlanta skyline, etc.) American architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Topped with a 3.2-kW solar array, this 210-square-foot mobile home doesn’t exactly scream “homey.” But, then again, curb appeal isn’t really the point here.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration. Rendering: SOM

A 3-D printed hybrid vehicle built for Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration.Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory /flickr

Resembling a futuristic hunting cabin of sorts (SOM really plays up the off-grid wilderness scenarios in its renderings), the AMIE abode, with its ribbed aerodynamic profile and rooftop photovoltaics, also wouldn’t look out of place amongst some of the more avant-garde entries at the Department of Energy's U.S. Solar Decathlon. Assembled by Tennessee-headquartered manufactured home heavyweight Clayton Homes, the single-room structure stands as a super-efficient showcase of an innovative, zero-waste 3-D printed panel system that integrates structure, insulation and exterior cladding along with air and moisture barriers. There's no loo, apparently, but there is a “micro-kitchen" outfitted with high-efficiency GE appliances.

SOM delves into the nitty-gritty:

Its photovoltaics (PV) will work in tandem with a natural gas powered generator located in the DOE-created vehicle, to supply energy for lighting and the GE-developed central microkitchen that incorporates advanced digital display screens, inductive cooking surfaces, waste-filtering faucet and sinks, and an under-counter refrigerator. The PV will charge the enclosure’s battery when the fixtures are not in use.

ORNL’s 3D-printed personal vehicle connects to the structure and its battery to provide supplementary power. AMIE demonstrates the use of bi-directional wireless energy technology and high-performance materials to achieve independence from the power grid at peak-demand times.

As noted by SOM, assembling homes, solar-powered or not, using 3-D printing technology is a quicker, cheaper, more efficient and dramatically lower waste affair compared to conventional homebuilding. Entire structures, much like the one printed for the AMIE research demonstration, could even potentially be fully recycled — or “ground up,” as SOM puts it — and reprinted for other uses.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration. Credit: SOM
Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy research demonstration. Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory /flickr

Alongside SOM and Clayton Homes, the University of Tennessee College and Knoxville-based carbon fiber manufacturer TruDesign served as key partners in the ORNL-headed endeavor. Both the home and the hybrid vehicle were assembled with carbon fiber components printed using the laboratory's Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system.

An estimated 25,000 pounds of these components were used in the construction of the futuristic cabin and that sweet 3-D printed jeep.

Roderick Jackson, ORNL’s project lead for the AMIE demo project, remarks in a news release: “Working together, we designed a building that innovates construction and building practices and a vehicle with a long enough range to serve as a primary power source. Our integrated system allows you to get multiple uses out of your vehicle.”

The folks at ORNL have really gone all out with presenting this one. The team's excitement is palpable. You could seriously spend a decent chunk of the day learning more about AMIE on the project website. After all, the ultimate goal wasn't to develop an impressive one-off concept home and be done with it. The laboratory envisions a future filled with sustainable communities where solar-powered homes and hybrid vehicles are united. "AMIE is not the end. It's the beginning of a discussion," says Jackson. "We want people to look at it and say 'what if?'"

If you’re still a touch confounded as to how this very special energy-sharing relationship between car and home pans out, this video published by ORNL provides a comprehensive yet easy-to-digest overview:

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.