Home Applications & Case Studies Wind turbine blades get a sustainable upgrade thanks to 3D printing

Wind turbine blades get a sustainable upgrade thanks to 3D printing

Researchers in Virginia Tech‘s College of Engineering are developing novel 3D printing processes and new recyclable materials to improve the environmental footprint of wind turbine blade manufacturing.

The team, led by Chris Williams, professor of mechanical engineering, and Michael Bortner, professor of chemical engineering, is using additive manufacturing techniques and a fully recyclable high-performance thermoplastic. This approach enables the environmentally sustainable production of turbine blades, which could replace previous materials such as glass fiber-reinforced composites.

“Although the energy generated by wind turbines is green, the materials they are made of are not recyclable, create a tremendous amount of waste, and blade manufacturing is quite arduous,” said Williams. “Our proposed project is looking to dramatically reduce waste, completely eliminate all hazardous materials, and enable 3D printing of a completely recyclable wind turbine.”

“There is a huge emphasis right now across the world for renewable energy resources and implementation of renewable resources,” said Bortner, associate director of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute. “With my focus on the materials research side coupled with Chris Williams’ work on the process side for additive manufacturing, we’re able to collaborate and solve these complex problems and transition them into full-scale wind turbine blade components.”

A core part of the project is the use of robotic printing techniques to produce large objects efficiently and in a material-saving manner. The researchers are using computer-aided design optimization to improve material distribution in the turbine blades and maximize their structural integrity. This would allow the turbine parts to be printed directly at the installation site, shortening transportation routes and significantly reducing transportation costs.

“Collaboration with industries gives us access to world class expertise in wind turbine blade designing, manufacturing, testing, and characterization,” said Williams. “NREL and TPI Composites are helping us explore how our research could be translated into their facilities and will help evaluate and test our materials and our optimized robotic printing toolpaths on their large robotic additive manufacturing platforms. The goal is to make sure that the interdisciplinary expertise we are bringing together has industrial relevance.”

The research work is supported by collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and TPI Composites. The newly developed materials and printing technologies have the potential to make the manufacture and assembly of wind turbines more sustainable and cost-efficient. The initiative represents an important step towards sustainable energy generation and could offer both environmental and economic benefits in the long term.

“This project speaks to the core strengths of Virginia Tech,” said Williams. “We are bringing together interdisciplinary expertise in a collaboration that is unique to this university. Our work with national labs and industry partners adds contextual expertise and a guiding path toward industrial relevance and future technology transition. It’s all in the name of advancing sustainability, which aligns perfectly with Virginia Tech’s vision to be a leader in climate action in service to our community, the commonwealth, and the world.”

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