3-D printing accelerates research on wind blades

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A new 3-D printing process developed jointly by Sandia National Laboratories and Oak Ridge National Laboratory could radically accelerate the development of more-efficient wind energy technology.

Sandia, Oak Ridge and wind-blade manufacturer TPI Composites worked together to design wind turbine blades fabricated from a 3-D printed mold. Their new mold-making process could dramatically reduce the time needed to make wind-blade prototypes, from about 16 months now to three months, said Josh Paquette, a Sandia mechanical engineer and principal investigator on the project.

That, in turn, could allow manufacturers to experiment with many more prototypes in shorter time spans, lowering industry costs when bringing new, state-of-the-art technology to market.

A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, shown here, worked with Sandia National Laboratories and a wind-blade company to design turbine blades fabricated from a 3-D-printed mold. (Courtesy of Brittany Cramer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

“With this process, industry can make prototype blades in just a few months, compared with well over a year now,” Paquette said. “That could accelerate research and development while enabling developers to try out more prototypes before introducing a final product.”

Sandia, which led the project partnership, won the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer’s national 2018 Technology Focus award in April for its collaborative work.

Sandia led the design of the wind blade during the project and assessed the feasibility of using 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, to build the mold. TPI provided input on the mechanical and structural design and the computer-aided programming used in the process. Oak Ridge, meanwhile, printed the mold in several sections, with final assembly and manufacturing of the blade completed at TPI.

Traditional mold-making is a labor-intensive, three-step process that begins with initial construction of a new blade prototype, followed by casting of the mold and then final production of the new blade. With 3-D printing, the research partners entirely removed the first step from the process, proceeding directly to casting the mold through computer-aided design, Paquette said.

In the project, the partners created three 13-meter blades that Sandia will now use for research in Albuquerque. That’s much smaller than today’s utility-scale blades, which often reach 50 to 60 meters each. For Sandia’s small experimental blades, it would normally take six months to make a mold. Through 3-D printing, the lab can now do that in less than one month, Paquette said.

For industry, however, the process can easily be adapted to manage utility-sized blades.

“Industry can scale up the process to make it fully applicable to full-sized molds in the future,” Paquette said.

The process is not suitable for direct manufacturing of blades for use on wind farms, because current 3-D printing technology and materials used in the process don’t offer the strength and fatigue resistance needed by wind blades on commercial turbines, Paquette said. But that could change as 3-D technology and materials advance.

“The research-related molds are only made to produce a few blades while trying out different shapes in the prototyping process,” Paquette said. “The new process allows us to quickly change shapes and designs on the computer and then send it to the printer to print the mold.”

But by accelerating the research and development process, the new mold-making technique could have a significant impact on improving wind technology and deploying wind generation.

The rapid spread of wind energy in the U.S. and worldwide in recent years largely rests on technological advances that have made wind generation far more efficient and inexpensive. Industry innovation has reduced costs by 67 percent since 2009, paving the way for broad adoption by utilities and other entities in many more regions, even in places with poor wind conditions, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s 2017 annual market report, released this month.

That includes taller turbines and bigger blades with larger rotary diameters, allowing generating facilities to tap a lot more wind energy, said John Hensley, association director for research and analytics. Digitalization of systems, improved siting of wind farms and better operations and management have also contributed.

“Systems are much smarter now allowing the machines to talk with each other and perform analytics to fix issues before they arise,” Hensley said. “They pinpoint things before they happen and make changes to keep operating without downtime.”

Those things have pushed annual operating capacity by today’s turbines to 40 percent or higher, compared with about 35 percent ten years ago, Hensley said.

More technological improvements will be critical in coming years to keep lowering costs, especially with federal subsidies for wind production now ratcheting down and scheduled to phase out completely by 2020.

As manufacturers work to build larger and more efficient turbines, companies will need more tools to rapidly prototype new wind blade designs, Paquette said.

“3-D printing will allow them to experiment with more blade iterations, leading to higher-performing wind turbines that capture more wind energy,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to drive down the costs of wind energy to increase deployment of the technology.”

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