Last spring, a 3D-printed replica Shelby Cobra, manufactured at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), visited the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters in Washington, DC. Now, DOE’s Wind Program and Advanced Manufacturing Office, ORNL, Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), and other organizations are partnering to apply this advanced manufacturing technology to the production of wind turbine blade molds. By applying 3D printing to the manufacture of blade molds, it is possible to reduce costs and time associated with manufacturing, experiment with new capabilities, and improve design flexibility. Blades are some of the most important—yet costly—components of a wind turbine, so finding ways to reduce the cost of blade manufacturing will further reduce the costs of wind energy. To tackle this problem, we are working with our partners to apply 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to renewable energy technologies.
Innovative Manufacturing for Clean Energy
American manufacturers play a key role in the delivery of renewable energy technologies and in supporting economic growth and employment nationwide.
DOE’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy promote U.S. clean energy leadership by increasing our nation’s competitiveness in manufacturing clean energy technologies. We are committed to continually increasing our nation’s competitiveness in the manufacture of clean energy technologies through research into new, more efficient techniques. The processes currently used to manufacture utility-scale wind turbine blades—which average over 150 feet in length—are complex, energy-intensive, and time-consuming. Trends toward larger blades, coupled with the drive for global competitiveness, are inspiring us to explore new manufacturing technologies.
Our initial focus is on simplifying the manufacture of molds for turbine blades. Currently, a “plug” must be manufactured and then used to form a mold out of which fiberglass blades can subsequently be manufactured. Eliminating the plug by applying 3D printing directly to the mold process will reduce the costs and amount of time required for blade manufacture.
DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has partnered with Cincinnati Incorporated to develop a new additive manufacturing tool—the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine at Oak Ridge’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. The BAAM system, used to 3D print the replica Shelby Cobra, is 500 to 1,000 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger than today’s industrial additive machines. The technology is also scalable, allowing us to make even larger components in the future.
The key objective of this project is to apply and demonstrate the Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine for creating molds for wind turbine systems, incorporating features and capabilities not available through other methods. In addition to demonstrating the additive manufacturing of wind turbine blade molds, other wind turbine components could benefit from this far-reaching technology.
Wind Turbine Research Blades
In addition, DOE will partner with ORNL, SNL, and industry to use 3D printing in the manufacture of molds for scaled-down turbine blades designed to simulate the aerodynamic characteristics of a full-size turbine. These blades will measure 13 meters (approximately 43 feet) in length, undergo static and fatigue testing at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and operate on wind turbines at DOE’s Scaled Wind Farm Technology (SWiFT) facility in Texas. These blades will be used to study wake aerodynamics—that is, the effects that turbines in close proximity to one another can have on efficiency. This research, in support of DOE’s Atmosphere to Electrons initiative, will be used to enhance wind facility efficiency.
In addition to providing clean, renewable energy, the wind industry in the United States is a significant economic force. The industry employs 73,000 people nationwide and is expected to attract $35 billion in investment over the next five years. Wind projects in the United States are already among the most cost-competitive in the world; these advancements in manufacturing will help cement our country’s position as a leader in clean, renewable energy for years to come.