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DOE Grant to Establish Wind Facility

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Erin D. McKenzie
Wang
Wang
Flumerfelt
Flumerfelt

Researchers to develop, test large wind turbine blades for offshore use

Efforts by the University of Houston to become a national leader in offshore wind technology received a huge boost from the U.S. Department of Energy, which recently awarded university researchers $2.3 million to establish a testing facility.

Slated to be located in the newly acquired UH Energy Research Park, grant funds will aid researchers in The National Wind Energy Center (NWEC) to develop and test composite materials and components for large offshore wind turbines.

“The new testing facility will not only help propel this region to the forefront of U.S. offshore wind development, but it will also help UH in becoming The Energy University,” said Elizabeth D. Rockwell Endowed Chair and Dean Joseph Tedesco. “Gaining a fuller understanding of the challenges associated with offshore wind energy technology is critical if we are to move into a clean energy future.”

The founding members of NWEC, Su Su Wang, professor of mechanical engineering and director of NWEC; Ray Flumerfelt, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and associate director of NWEC; and Daniel Davis, senior research scientist, have been working in composite research for years. They will use their expertise to improve on the materials currently used to make wind turbine blades as well as develop a new, cheaper material increasing the life of large blades.

Throughout the duration of the two-year grant, the three researchers plan to partner with others in the Cullen College as well as industry to solve some of the challenges facing wind.

Wind energy has become an increasingly popular alternative to oil, natural gas and other traditional energy sources mainly because it’s considered a cleaner, more affordable option. However, the U.S. greatly lags behind other countries in research and technology development. Despite a much higher potential, currently less than 1 percent of the country’s power comes from wind.

Though offshore wind farms have existed elsewhere in the world for years, the U.S. still has none. UH hopes to change that.

“I think of offshore wind being where the offshore oil and gas industry was in the 1960s,” said Flumerfelt. “We are very primitive, and current federal goals call for technology development to generate 30 percent of the nation’s electricity needs through wind power. We want to help do this.”

The potential for wind in Texas makes the state a natural fit for the development and testing of the huge turbine components required for future wind farms. Offshore, it’s even greater.

“There are advantages with offshore wind,” Flumerfelt said. “It offers large continuous areas suitable for major installations, a closer proximity to major population centers, higher quality winds and wind speeds and lower turbulence. This translates into potentially higher power production and efficiencies as well as reduced fatigue on rotor blades.”

Flumerfelt said the center plans to capitalize on this fact.

NWEC researchers will work to develop advanced materials to use in blades and towers that double the life of existing equipment. Through partnerships with the chemical industry, they will look at improving the current thermoset epoxy-based blade design as well as develop a new generation thermoplastic composite for turbine blade applications. The goal is to produce higher performing, cheaper blades able to tolerate extreme offshore conditions.

Their research will also look at streamlining the manufacturing process for blades 70 meters and larger. Much like what’s done with modern aircrafts, they hope to construct them in pieces and then join them together.

“Offshore winds within 50 nautical miles of our coastline alone could generate 1,000 gigawatts of power—more than the current average power consumption of the U.S.,“ said Wang. “Our vision is that offshore wind energy will supply 30 percent of the U.S. demand for electricity as a continuously producing energy reservoir, at a cost of four cents per kilowatt hour with no fuel costs and no carbon footprint.”

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