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Experts Receive $1.9M NSF Grant for Wind-Energy Research

Innovative Turbine Blade Material Will Be Derived From Vegetable Oil

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Workers rappel more than 300 feet off the ground from a 3-megawatt wind turbine at the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colo.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from UMass Lowell and Wichita State University has been awarded nearly $1.9 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop the next-generation of wind-turbine blades. The team will create new sustainable, bio-derived materials for manufacturing the blades.

“This study aims to replace petroleum-based epoxy resins currently used in turbine blades with more eco-friendly materials,” says mechanical engineering Prof. Christopher Niezrecki, who is the principal investigator for the project and a member of UMass Lowell’s Wind Energy Research Group (WERG).

“We will also assess and understand the impact this blade conversion will have on the economy, wind industry, environment and society,” adds Niezrecki.

Other members of the UMass Lowell research team include Profs. Emmanuelle Reynaud, Peter Avitabile and James Sherwood (mechanical engineering); Daniel Schmidt and Robert Malloy (plastics engineering); David Turcotte (economics) and Stephen Pennell and James Graham-Eagle (mathematics).

UMass Lowell will receive $1.51 million of the NSF funds while the rest will go to Wichita State University.

Green Technology Will Minimize Cost, Energy Use

Wind power is a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. It is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed and does not emit greenhouse gases during operation. Large wind farms are already in operation in Texas, California, Iowa and Indiana, and similar facilities are planned offshore in Nantucket Sound. Wind already provides enough electricity for more than 13 million homes annually in America, and much more wind power is on the way.

Niezrecki comments that in the United States, we can expect the number of commercial wind-turbine units to grow to 170,000 by 2030, supplying up to 20 percent of the country’s energy demand. However, this growth also means that we need to dispose of well over 34,000 blades per year in the U.S. and approximately five times as many globally. These blades can measure up to 200 feet long and weigh as much as 18 tons each. 

“Essentially, all of these blades are manufactured from fiberglass composites containing large amounts of petroleum-based epoxy resins, and at the end of their lives, they are very difficult to recycle,” he explains. “Spent blades are disposed of in landfills, burned as fuel to generate electricity or cut up and used as filler in construction.” 

Past research on bio-based polymers has been primarily successful in developing new, more sustainable thermoplastics, but these materials are generally not suited for the stringent requirements of applications such as wind-turbine blades. 

“Our efforts will focus on thermoset epoxies derived from vegetable oil, a non-toxic, sustainable and readily available raw material, to minimize energy consumption and cost during production,” says Niezrecki, adding that concurrent work will enable the materials to be recycled.

“Professors Reynaud and Schmidt are leading the material-development effort of this work, building upon preliminary results generated thanks to the financial support of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute,” he states. “If successful, this technology will be applicable not only to wind-turbine blades but also to any product that is made from fiberglass, such as boats, swimming pools, bath tubs, chairs, etc.,” he says.

A New Wind Energy Center

This past summer UMass Lowell, in collaboration with Texas A&M University, Iowa State University and the University of Texas at Dallas, received a seed grant from the NSF to establish an NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center for Wind Energy, Science, Technology and Research (WindSTAR).

The proposed center will enhance national excellence in wind-energy research and development as well as provide state-of-the-art training to a team of diverse undergraduate and graduate students who will support and eventually lead in the design, manufacture, operation and maintenance of wind-energy systems. The center will also create a forum that enables wind-turbine manufacturers, suppliers, service companies and wind-project developers to solve common problems. 

WindSTAR is expected to open at UMass Lowell in January 2014.