If there ever was a poster child for Industry 4.0, then it should definitely be the wind turbine.
Squeezing everything they can from the latest industrial revolution, the renewable energy generators utilize Industry 4.0 tools including Digital Twins, IoT connectivity, HPC-powered CFD simulations, composite research and naturally, the modern means of manufacturing.
All are combined in a bid to eke every last iota of efficiency from the wind turbine system, allowing more energy to be extracted from the wind itself.
There are many efficiency gains to be made in the study of the blades themselves, especially in how the geometry is defined to reduce aerodynamic losses from the tips and roots of the blades.
We did a previous article touching on that subject:
Nature-inspired Ocean & Wind Turbine Mods Boost Efficiency
Naturally, these huge blades benefit from being light, and so composite materials such as CFRP are mostly used, costly as that may be.
Is 3D printing the solution to creating large composite parts and reducing the expensive labour costs and mold costs associated with composite manufacture?
The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy thinks so, and that is why they have just awarded $2.8 million to the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center to continue research into the use of AM for low cost molds to be used in the manufacture of segmented blades.
The university already holds 3 Guinness World Records (as of 2019) for the world’s largest prototype polymer 3D printer, largest solid 3D-printed object, and largest 3D-printed boat.
They will team up with researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who are in possession of a large continuous fiber deposition machine.
Recyclable Heated Molds
Composites need heat and pressure at the exact right time in order to set properly, and the heated moulds used to create blades are incredibly expensive, due to the material, machining and labor costs.
With the ONRL machine depositing heater element fibers, UMaine plans to combine their own bio-based polymer composite system to print molds with the heaters embedded within the mold walls. The UMaine polymer mix consists of carbon-fibre / ABS blend, which is adulterated with a wood-derived polymer, which lowers the cost significantly and also allows the molds to be broken down to be reformed later. The recyclability of the polymer mix also saves cash on raw materials, as well as being environmentally kind(er).
In addition to the reduced costs and lead time afforded by the new process, it is hoped that the manufacturing of these lower cost blades will drive adoption, and hence create further jobs, not just in the immediate factory but all along the supply chain, including the wood industry.
“The University of Maine remains a leader in additive manufacturing and wind energy technology, and this funding will harness researchers’ expertise in both areas,” said Sen. Susan Collins.
“We are thrilled that the Department of Energy continues to invest in UMaine’s cutting-edge research and prioritizes the advancement of our state’s clean energy economy and the creation of good-paying jobs.”
You can read more about the work that the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center is doing, over at this link.