Additive manufacturing using 3D printing technology has the potential to compress supply chains, minimise materials and energy use, and reduce waste, according to the US department of energy. But beyond streamlining production processes, companies are also using 3D printers to bring innovative, low-cost energy solutions to the market itself – including portable solar arrays and bicycle-powered generators.

Organisations such as Peppermint Energy and Designs For Hope have used 3D printing technology to help individuals spur economic development, participate in emerging industries, and access educational opportunities in areas of the world that don’t have reliable access to electricity.

Worldwide, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. South Dakota-based Peppermint Energy is determined to change that with its flagship product called the Forty2.  This is a portable array that draws enough energy from the sun to provide light, refrigerate medicine or food, or power a laptop. A battery connected to the array stores power for use when the sun is down.

In response to the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, this device was developed to bring emergency power to the area, and is being used in the rebuilding efforts. “It’s only when you see it in physical form that you realise the form and function should be the same,” Peppermint Energy co-founder Brian Gramm says. For example, a power switch is unnecessary; just opening the Forty2 turns it on.

Another company, Designs For Hope in Alabama, has developed an inexpensive, durable device that enables rotational energy to be harvested and stored from one of the simplest and most readily available forms of transportation in developing regions worldwide, a bicycle. The device holds a generator on a bike, harvests its power and conditions the electricity for storage in a battery.

The development team began making prototypes on a Dimension 3D Printer from Stratasys, but the initial design had some flaws. After the team 3D printed out its first idea and held it next to a bicycle, they realised it wouldn’t work, Chris Bond, founder of Designs for Hope says. After many design iterations and prototypes, made possible using the Dimension 3D Printer, the team finalised the device, and has since worked with missionary networks to place units in the field.

One recipient is a Uganda orphanage whose only power comes from a small solar-panel system. Orphanage workers commute seven to ten kilometres daily by bike. Once at work, they charge their cell phones from the solar panels, gobbling up limited power. Bond hopes his device alleviates this problem. “The beautiful thing is, they’re using their bikes anyway. It’s free energy.”