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Virginia Tech leverages 3D printing for wind turbine production

The team aims to 3D print wind turbine blades on-site at wind farms thanks to a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy

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Virginia Tech researchers, led by Chris Williams and Michael Bortner, are pioneering a significant advancement in wind turbine blade technology through a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy. This funding is part of a broader $72 million initiative aimed at improving manufacturing processes for wind technologies and developing sustainable solutions for wind energy utilization.

The project focuses on employing additive manufacturing techniques to construct wind turbine blades from a novel, recyclable thermoplastic material. This approach is expected to revolutionize the way wind turbines are produced and address several environmental and logistical challenges associated with current manufacturing methods.

Traditionally, wind turbine blades are manufactured in specialized facilities using large molds and are subsequently transported to their installation sites – often remote locations – via semi-trucks. This process not only involves extensive planning and logistical challenges but also results in significant environmental footprints due to the non-recyclable nature of the materials used.

The Virginia Tech team aims to mitigate these issues by developing a method to 3D print wind turbine blades on-site at wind farms. This method involves a robotically-controlled printing process capable of creating large objects, including turbine blades larger than the printer itself. The process utilizes a new polymer composite, developed by Bortner and his team, that is entirely recyclable and possesses the necessary properties of traditional glass fiber-reinforced composites used in blade manufacturing.

Virginia Tech leverages 3D printing for wind turbine production. The team aims to 3D print wind turbine blades on-site at wind farms.
Tadeusz Kosaml (left) and Isaac Rogers (right) review the multi-axis motion paths for robotic 3D printing. Photo credit: Clark Dehart for Virginia Tech.

This innovative approach is anticipated to dramatically reduce waste and eliminate the use of hazardous materials in the construction of wind turbines. The recyclable nature of the new material means that once the turbine blades reach the end of their lifecycle or become damaged, they can be broken down, reprocessed, and reprinted into new blades. This not only enhances the sustainability of the materials but also significantly cuts down on the energy and resources required for blade production and disposal.

The project also leverages the expertise of the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering at Virginia Tech, using the university’s Stability Wind Tunnel to assess the aerodynamic properties of the printed blades. This interdisciplinary collaboration extends to include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and TPI Composites, which provides industry insight and testing capabilities to ensure the project’s findings are industrially relevant and scalable.

Chris Williams, Director of the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Laboratory, highlights that this project is a convergence of new technologies and materials research. By combining unique design optimization techniques with robotic printing and novel material use, the team is poised to transform the production of wind turbine blades, making it more sustainable, cost-effective, and adaptable to on-site manufacturing.

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Composites AM 2024

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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