AMES, Iowa - It's not easy to make the machines that convert wind to electricity.
Just consider the turbine blades that spin in the wind: a single blade can be 40 to 50 meters long and 10,000 to 15,000 pounds. It has to be built within millimeters of specifications. It has to be built to withstand 20 years of harsh conditions in the field. And it has to be built to handle speeds up to 200 miles per hour at the tip.
Iowa State University researchers are working with researchers from TPI Composites, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that operates a turbine blade factory in Newton; and the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., to improve the process currently used to manufacture turbine blades.
The researchers' work is supported by a three-year, $6.3 million project called the "Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Initiative." One third of the project's funding is from the Iowa Power Fund, a state program to advance energy innovation and independence. TPI Composites and the U.S. Department of Energy are also providing equal shares of funding.
The grant will allow Iowa State to establish a Wind Energy Manufacturing Laboratory on campus. The lab will feature the work of four faculty researchers: Matt Frank, Frank Peters and John Jackman, all associate professors of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Vinay Dayal, an associate professor of aerospace engineering. The grant will also support the research of five graduate students and several undergraduates.
The researchers' goal is to develop new, low-cost manufacturing systems that could improve the productivity of turbine blade factories by as much as 35 percent.
"The current manufacturing methods are very labor intensive," Jackman said. "We need to improve throughput - we need to get more blades produced every week in order for it to be economical to continue to produce wind energy components in the United States."
Peters said possible manufacturing improvements include developments in automation and quality control.
Peters said Iowa State's new lab will initially work with smaller versions of the molds used to manufacture fiberglass turbine blades. The lab will allow the researchers to study blade manufacturing in a controlled setting while they look for ways to boost efficiency. Eventually, the lab could also study the manufacturing of wind towers, the nacelles that sit atop the towers, gearboxes and other wind energy components.
Dayal, who's also a faculty associate with Iowa State's Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, said the lab will also look at developing new ways for manufacturers to inspect blades without taking them apart. Faster, better inspections are another way to improve factory efficiency and blade reliability.
The researchers said Iowa State is uniquely positioned to study wind energy manufacturing. Iowa, which has an installed wind energy capacity of 3,043 megawatts, is second in the country in wind power production. And Iowa is one of only two states that are home to manufacturing facilities for wind energy turbines, blades and towers.
"With this project," the researchers wrote in a project summary, "Iowa State University's College of Engineering will become one of the leading academic institutions working on wind energy manufacturing."
But there's more at stake here.
"This project is all about making wind energy a reality," Frank said. "How do we make an impact on the U.S. energy profile? To do that, we have to develop manufacturing technologies that can economically make a lot of these components."
About TPI Composites Inc.
TPI Composites is a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based leading blade supplier to the wind energy movement. TPI delivers high-quality, cost-effective composite solutions through long-term agreements with the industry's leading manufacturers, including GE Energy and Mitsubishi Power Systems. TPI operates factories throughout the U.S., Mexico and China. More information is here.
About Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness. More information is here.