US Department of Energy contractor Sandia National Laboratories has been working to improve wind power for decades, focusing on the technology at its Scaled Wind Farm Technology (SWiFT) facility, and a couple of years ago the laboratory brought in 3D printing, fabricating new wind turbine blades from 3D printed molds. The project was undertaken in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and TPI Composites, the country’s largest independent manufacturer of wind turbine blades. It was started in response to the long prototyping times required to create new blades – the molds could take 16 months to construct before the blades could finally be built and tested.

Using 3D printing, Sandia and partners were able to reduce this time to just three months. Traditional mold-making is a three-step process that involves making an initial prototype of the blade, casting a mold of that blade and then using the mold to make a final prototype. Sandia and partners eliminated the first step entirely, creating the mold directly from a digital design. The demonstration was carried out using a relatively small 13-meter blade, but the technology could potentially be applied at larger scales, allowing designers to take more risks with experimental designs and accelerate progress in the wind turbine industry.

[Image courtesy of Brittany Cramer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory]

Sandia has now won the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer’s national 2018 Technology Focus Award for these turbine blades, which were the first to be constructed using 3D printed molds. In addition, it won FLC’s Excellence in Technology Transfer Award for advanced nanomaterial window films that could save consumers billions in energy costs each year.

“These two deserving collaborations align well with Sandia’s mission,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, Manager of Technology and Economic Development and Sandia’s representative to the consortium. “They strengthen our nation’s energy security and resilience by lowering the cost of energy technologies.”

Sandia led the design of the wind turbine blade, including an assessment of the feasibility of using additive manufacturing. TPI consulted on the mechanical parameters and carried out the structural design and CAD geometry required to mold the blade. ORNL 3D printed the mold in several sections in only two weeks, and the final assembly and manufacturing of the blade took place at TPI.

“The wind department at Sandia has expertise [in] designing blades, but our group doesn’t work with additive manufacturing. This project was an opportunity to combine expertise from two laboratories and an industry adviser that could immediately bring this knowledge into the private sector,” said Sandia researcher Josh Paquette.

3D printing materials do not yet offer the strength and fatigue resistance required to directly manufacture final wind turbine blades, so it will remain a prototyping technology for the time being. As materials and processes advance, this could change.

“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.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association’s just-released 2017 annual market report, innovation in the wind industry has reduced costs by 67 percent since 2009, allowing for more widespread adoption even in locations with poor wind conditions. These innovations include taller turbines with larger rotary diameters, which allow wind farms to tap much more wind energy. As federal subsidies for wind production are being phased out, the use of technology to boost manufacturers’ efforts is becoming more critical.

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

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Sources: Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque Journal]

 

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