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University of Maine receives 2.8 M for AM wind blade research

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The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center received $2.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to develop a rapid, low-cost additive manufacturing solution for fabricating large, segmented wind blade molds.

The Department of Energy’s focus aims to combat the current costs of wind turbine technology. Innovation in large wind blade technology is a costly and time-intensive process. Molds and tooling for large blades can cost upward of $10 million. The time to market of 16–20 months stifles innovation in this growing market.

The UMaine Composites Center, which assists the University’s AM efforts, will also collaborate with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The ORNL received a $4 million award to apply robotic deposition of continuous reinforcing fibers in wind blades.

These developments come in the opening days of Joe Biden’s presidency, and the President promised to favour renewable energy development. The Department of Energy’s decision as regards the University of Maine, though quite removed from the President himself, puts paid to this promise.

“The University of Maine remains a leader in additive manufacturing and wind energy technology, and this funding will harness researchers’ expertise in both areas,” said Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King in a Jan. 28 announcement of the award. “We are thrilled that the Department of Energy continues to invest in UMaine’s cutting-edge research and prioritizes the advancement of our state’s clean energy economy and the creation of good-paying jobs.”

“Building on a decade plus of research excellence in nanocellulose, composites and wind blade testing, University of Maine researchers and students will apply this knowledge to additive manufacturing, transforming large wind blade development and accelerating innovation in this growing market,” said University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy.

“Very large wind blade molds will be printed on the world’s largest polymer 3D printer located at the UMaine Composites Center using recyclable bio-based materials reinforced with wood,” said Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “By combining cutting-edge 3D printing manufacturing with bio-based feedstocks, our team estimates that new blade development costs can be reduced by 25% to 50% and accelerated by at least 6 months. Molds produced using these materials can be ground up and reused in other molds, making them a more sustainable solution.”

UMaine is a world leader in cellulose nanofiber (CNF) technology, including development of nano- and micro-cellulose reinforced thermoplastic composites. These new bio-based materials promise mechanical properties similar to aluminum at lower fabricated costs.

Carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS thermoplastic feedstocks, which are widely used in large scale 3D printing, cost more than $5 per pound. By incorporating bio-based materials derived from wood, the cost of the feedstock can be reduced to less than $2 per pound.

The molds will incorporate 3D-printed heating elements using a new technology developed at ORNL. Control of mold surface temperatures is a critical mold manufacturing requirement, and the new ORNL technology enables robotic deposition of heating elements, reducing mold fabrication time and cost.

“Oak Ridge National Laboratory will apply expertise in additive manufacturing, carbon fiber technology and materials science to advance the use of 3D printing in wind energy applications,” said ORNL’s Xin Sun, interim associate laboratory director for energy science and technology. “We look forward to collaborating with UMaine to optimize these clean energy technologies to benefit the environment and boost the economy.”

The outcome of the proposed research is to transform mold production as a key enabler for more rapid and more cost-effective large wind turbine blade development. TPI Composites and Siemens Gamesa (SGRE) are partnering with the UMaine Composites Center on the project. A successful demonstration will put both SGRE and TPI in a position to transition the additive manufacturing solution into practice.

SGRE is the world’s leading supplier of offshore wind turbines and TPI produces approximately 18% of the world’s wind blades. Ingersoll Machine Tools, the 3D printer manufacturer, and Techmer PM, the cellulosic-thermoplastic feedstock compounder, also are on the team, providing the ability to scale-up both equipment and feedstock production.

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Adam Strömbergsson

Adam is a legal researcher and writer with a background in law and literature. Born in Montreal, Canada, he has spent the last decade in Ottawa, Canada, where he has worked in legislative affairs, law, and academia. Adam specializes in his pursuits, most recently in additive manufacturing. He is particularly interested in the coming international and national regulation of additive manufacturing. His past projects include a history of his alma mater, the University of Ottawa. He has also specialized in equity law and its relationship to judicial review. Adam’s current interest in additive manufacturing pairs with his knowledge of historical developments in higher education, copyright and intellectual property protections.

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