The more that the renewable energy and additive manufacturing (AM) sectors evolve, the clearer it becomes how much the two industries have to offer one another. So far, this has mostly been true regarding wind turbines. Nonetheless, the wind industry’s steadily increasing success with AM techniques could, soon enough, lead other renewable sectors to explore more seriously the possibility of adopting AM, as well.
The latest example of companies leveraging AM for wind-power supply primarily involves three firms — GE Renewable, COBOD International, and Holcim — that have already been working together in this area for several years. The present project takes the collaboration to even greater heights: GE’s now-operational concrete 3D-printing R&D facility in Bergen, NY, the world’s largest such site. Most notably, the research center is powered by entirely new hardware from COBOD, perhaps the world’s most significant additive construction (AC) company.
Image courtesy of GE Renewable Energy
COBOD’s latest printing system, designed specifically for GE’s research facility, is the size of a three story building, and can print concrete sections up to 60 feet high. The system achieves its hourly output rate of over 10 tons of concrete in part due to its having two X-axes — the only concrete 3D-printer in the world with this feature. As such, COBOD’s founder and general manager, Henrik Lund-Nielsen, argues, “…the printer can better be described as a multifunctional construction robot than a printer.”
Image courtesy of GE Renewable Energy
Previously, in 2019 and 2020, GE Renewable, COBOD, and Holcim worked together on a similar project to print concrete bases for wind turbines. That the current, follow-up phase of the project will also be focused on printing bases for wind turbines indicates the success of the initial phase. In addition, when the project was originally being reported on, back in the summer of 2020, the companies involved were already mentioning plans to collaborate on the COBOD system currently being rolled out. This suggests that we can take as a fairly useful rough estimate, the timeline of five years which GE projects it will take for the R&D center’s work to lead to turbine bases that are operating in the field.
Most nations appear to have set an initial target of 2030 for reaching the first big threshold of carbon emission reductions, on the way to (what still seems an almost impossibly ambitious) target of net-zero carbon emissions. If GE Renewable is planning on the R&D project paying real-world dividends by about 2027, this is yet another recent sign that bodes well for AM techniques making a major contribution to the next generation of wind-power.
Finally, this entire collaboration is a highly illuminating window into what is, for better or worse, the current state of the renewable energy sector. Aside from the three companies already mentioned, at least two other, more local companies are involved. So is the U.S. Department of Energy, which partially funded the project with a grant. The number of interests necessarily involved in a project of this magnitude illustrates how complex the economic conditions are in the business environment of the renewables sector. On the other hand, a business environment finally does seem to exist, which can realistically get a project like this off the ground. This hints that the idea of a new generation of renewable energy infrastructure may no longer be the mere pipe dream that it once was.
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