New windmill blades could promise lower costs for renewable energy

As a top-tier research institution, various departments at Washington State University Vancouver engage in several research projects throughout the year; every day new research is being done across campus. One of these projects is an exploration into new fabrications methods for the production of new wind turbine blades. This project is being led by Dae-Woo (Dave) Kim, Ph.D. from the mechanical engineering department. Steve Solovitz, Ph.D., from the same department has assisted with the design aspects of the research. This project receives funding from the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, which was awarded to mechanical engineering graduate student and research assistant Juan Garate. The project also has two volunteer undergraduate research assistants. While this project has no specific sponsor, Kim says “engineers work for the betterment of humankind” and the technology they develop is intended for marketing to small-to-medium sized manufacturers, such as Renewable Energy Composite Solutions, LLC based here in Vancouver.

Most wind turbines are currently constructed in difficult to reach locations for a variety of safety and environmental factors. This includes the tops of hills, mountains, and other high wind areas with low chances of prohibitive factors such as, bird strikes and urban environments. This creates a logistical problem as wind turbines are constructed on location and there are no roads directly to the site. The large blades are driven to the location completely assembled and ready to install; but this can be problematic as the trucks carrying these loads can have difficulty making the journey, for a variety of reasons. The current material used for these blades is a type of polymer called thermoset. This material can be problematic since it burns instead of melting, making it impossible to recycle any damaged blades into material for new ones.

The goal of WSU Vancouver’s research is to create an environmentally friendly wind turbine blade. The blade can be divided into segments to make transport to the work site simpler and more environmentally friendly. Simpler transportation means lower emissions and less soil erosion; both are major side effects of frequent trips by semi-trucks. The blades could be assembled on site, which can also make repairs easier and less costly by replacing only the damaged section of a blade. As a result of these improvements, damaged blades are recyclable reducing environmental impact.

This project has been underway since January and is expected to last approximately one more year. Solovitz has been working on the design of the blade, and chose the most traditional design, partly because this will make it easier to market the new technology to existing companies.

The team calculated reactions from wind, speed, forces, and other engineering factors that were then used to develop a model in a computer-aided design (CAD) program. The CAD model was then divided into sections and later used to develop aluminum molds for the experimental process. The current work involves casting glass fiber reinforced polypropylene composites in these molds. Polypropylene is a commonly used polymer for all sorts of applications including: hard phone cases, plastic seats, trashcans, and much more.             Additionally, polypropylene is a thermoplastic which differs from thermosets in that thermoplastics are capable of being recycled because they will melt when exposed to heat without significant degradation of the material.

The team is also working with facilities operations so that upon completion of the project, tests can be conducted on the WSU Vancouver wind farms. Not only does it provide a visible outcome of the research, but it also provides a safe method for testing the project’s effectiveness.

Kim is working on several other research projects as well, including working with Boeing to develop a new, innovative tool design for work on the new 787 Dreamliner plane. Due to the composite materials used in the construction of the aircraft, Boeing has found that they need to find new ways of drilling, and are currently exploring a carbon fiber reinforced titanium hybrid drill bit.

Kim, along with Hakan Guracak, Ph.D., director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science, is also working with Christianson Ship Yards with funding from the City of Portland on automating the Christianson factory and improving product quality. He also has a project involving modeling and simulating aircraft structure fatigue for process enhancement.

Kim is writing grants now to hopefully provide additional paid research opportunities on the wind turbine project, but there is always a need for volunteers. Anyone interested in learning more may contact Kim at kimd@wsu.edu or visit his page by searching for him through the WSU Vancouver directory.


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