Composites Researchers Manufacture Wind Turbine Blade Prototypes

18 November 2005

Researchers in the Composites Laboratory of Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research are currently assembling 10-foot wind turbine blade prototypes for a research project in coordination with Wetzel Engineering and the United States Department of Energy (DOE).

Dr. James E. Locke, NIAR Research and Development Director, and Dr. Kyle K. Wetzel have been working together on a $750,000 grant from the DOE. Wetzel Engineering, Inc., principal investigator, is working to develop a six-kilowatt small wind turbine. NIAR's focus in the project is blade manufacturing and structural testing.

Manufacturing efforts for this project began in July 2005, but Locke has been involved with Sandia National Laboratory's materials and structures wind turbine blade research since 2001 when NIAR began a study of wind turbine blade designs.

In the past four years, Locke and Wetzel have collaborated on numerous projects that involve the design and manufacturing of wind turbine blades. Locke has also been involved with the testing of several subcomponents for potential use in wind turbine blades.

The current manufacturing team includes Locke, Wetzel, NIAR Research Associate Sanjay Sharma and WSU engineering students Michelle Man, Terrence Seet and Krishna Pai. Many aspects of the current manufacturing process were developed by Sharma in previous research projects for Sandia National Laboratories.

“Manufacturing a blade shell is an involved process, particularly when mixing fiber forms and architectures within the mold,"" Locke said. The researchers are faced with the challenge of manufacturing a quality blade for minimal cost in order to minimize the total cost for wind-generated electricity.

Manufacturing the blades is dependent on several factors including the air temperature in the lab and the temperature of the blade tooling. When blade manufacturing began in July, the lab air and blade tooling were relatively warm, which resulted in an ideal infusion process. More recently researchers have encountered problems with cooler air temperatures in the lab, which affect the viscosity of the resin used for the infusion process. The resin must maintain a low level of viscosity in order to be infused through the blades using a vacuum system. This setback was solved by using heating elements, which are much like an electric blanket, to heat the molds while the resin is being infused.

The research team has manufactured six useable blade shells and plans to finish full-assembly of ten blade prototypes by late November. The prototypes will then be sent to NIAR’s Aircraft Structural Testing and Evaluation Center (ASTEC) on the Raytheon Aircraft campus in Wichita for full-scale structural testing. When the full-scale tests are completed, Wetzel will submit a report to the DOE and Sandia National Laboratories.

“Depending on the outcome of this study, we could end up building more blades in the future,” Locke said. He said NIAR has been able to work with Wetzel Engineering, Inc., Sandia National Laboratories and the DOE because of the institute’s variety of laboratories and capabilities and the ability of the facility to do the initial subcomponent testing, manufacturing and full-scale testing.

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