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Waste not, want not: This 3D-printed supercar could pave the way to green speed

  • Divergent Microfactories

     (Divergent Microfactories)

  • Divergent Microfactories

     (Divergent Microfactories)

The world's automakers are going to build 4 billion cars in the next 30 years. That number is staggering enough on its own, but when we stop to consider what that means in resources, energy and environmental impact, the effort required seem almost incomprehensible.

Enter Divergent Microfactories, and its prototype supercar the Blade. It may have lines from Tron and a 700 horsepower bi-fuel engine, but the real story behind the Blade is how it's built. The prototype supercar makes use of a revolutionary new type of modular, 3D-printed construction. And it could pave the way for all automotive manufacturing to come.

Tinkertoy, or car?

While Divergent CEO Kevin Czinger, told Digital Trends that his inspiration came from seeing the environmental consequences of building electric cars -- more on that later -- we could be forgiven for thinking that he took his inspiration from Tinkertoys. That's because the modular chassis is based on a deceptively simple system of 3D-printed aluminum nodes, and aerospace carbon fiber rods. Like the connectors on Tinkertoys, the aluminum nodes can be arranged in nearly any configuration. The results are impressive. The aluminum and carbon chassis on the Blade tips the scales at just 102 pounds, and according to Divergent Microfactories is as strong and rigid as a conventional chassis.

From there the car gets a 700 hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged Evo motor that can switch seamlessly from compressed natural gas, to regular gasoline. This sounds sci-fi, and indeed to us, it looks optimistic, but the real point of this technology is not to allow for radical high tech powertrains, but rather to keep weight down to a bare minimum.

From a performance standpoint, this technology has obvious benefits. Most notably, keeping the weight down means quicker acceleration and better handling. The Blade has a dry weight of only 1,400 pounds, 300 pounds less than the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, a car made of largely of good intentions and farfegnugen. If the Blade ever goes into production the chassis could prove a real advantage over other performance machines. Yet, to Kevin Czinger the performance benefits are really just a good way of showing off what he really cares about: environmental impact.

3D printing a brighter future:

Czinger isn't just concerned with what comes from the tailpipe of a car, he's concerned with the environmental impact of its entire lifecycle, from manufacture to scrap heap. As Digital Trends has examined before, emissions are only the tip of the melting iceberg that represents this entire process. Everything from the energy needed to mine the metal cars are built with, to the cost of refining fuel, and the work of building factories must be considered. When all these factors are evaluated, the results can be astronomical. An Argonne Labs study cited by Divergent Microfactories suggests that tailpipe emissions account for less than a third of the total environmental cost of a gasoline vehicle, a conclusion backed by the Norwegian study cited in our own article.

The traditional answer to this problem has been to point towards electric vehicles, or more efficient ways to convert fuel to usable energy. But they might actually be worse. Czinger got his automotive start as he says, as "a true believer in EVs," working on establishing battery and automotive production lines in China. What he discovered in this work, however, is that the environmental cost of EV production is shocking, due in part to processes like mining for rare-earth metals to the energy used to physically produce the cars. Czinger isn't alone. Some researchers believe that in many cases, the massive industrial cost of EVs actually means a higher carbon footprint than the internal-combustion alternative.

Divergent wants to tackle this conundrum in a couple of innovative ways. First, by producing cars that are inherently more efficient thanks to their lightness. But the bigger innovations will come from how they're produced. Because the nodes and carbon fiber rods used to build the chassis are standardized, they don't require customized tooling, or the sort of immense manufacturing base of a typical automotive production line. In fact, Czinger estimated that a 10,000 unit a year production line would cost around $10 million, much cheaper than a traditional plant. Because the technology allows for nearly infinite customization, the same parts can be used to build sports cars, trucks, and minivans. This means fewer production lines, fewer costly machines, and lightened environmental impact.

Perhaps the most interesting benefit of modular 3D-printed construction is that it requires fewer resources. Modern car production wastes a great deal of material in tooling, cutting, and shaping. A Tesla Model S weighs 4,700 pounds, as much as a full-size truck. Now think about just how much material is needed to build that car, and the literally billions of other cars that projections show will be built in the next generation. Some quick back-of-the-calculator math shows that we'll need tens of trillions of tons of material to build that estimated 4 billion vehicles in the next 30 years, a nearly impossible task. 3D printing offers a rosier picture, and not only because the final cars weigh less, but because less is wasted in production; 3D printers use only the material necessary, nothing more.

What comes next?

The potential implications of this technology are as big as the automotive industry itself. Czinger told us he envisions a business in which entrepreneurs around the world are able to license the 3D-printed node technology and set up their own "microfactories" building cars of their own design.

But that's a long way off. 3D printing still a confusing new technology to some automotive engineers, and the idea of building featherweight cars with it could be scary for consumers used to doors that thunk shut like tank hatches. In the meantime, Divergent Microfactories hopes to put the Blade into limited production to demonstrate just what the combination of 3D printing and modular construction can achieve.