The latest round of ARPA-E grants was just announced and among the 66 cleantech projects that received funding was GE's latest wind technology development: fabric wind turbine blades. When I first read this, I was imagining something that looked like sails, but the structure of the blade will remain pretty much the same except instead of fiberglass, a super-strong architectural fabric will be wrapped around the blade frame.
According to GE, this swap will allow for turbine blades that perform just as well, but can be made on site for a much lower cost -- up to 40 percent less. This slash in manufacturing cost could make wind energy cost competitive with fossil fuels without government subsidies.
From an energy generation standpoint, the use of fabric, which is lighter than fiberglass, would allow for the production of much longer blades. Longer blades can capture even more of the wind's energy.
The press release explains,"GE’s research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs which run the length of the blade and specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations. Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fiberglass, which is heavier and more labor and time-intensive to manufacture."
With the current blade design, there is a cap to how large you can make the turbine because of weight, financial and transportation restrictions. Just the molds for large fiberglass turbine blades cost millions. But lightweight fabric opens up the possibility of bigger, lighter turbines that can generate wind energy from slower wind speeds. The ability to construct the blades on-site rather than far away at a factory means the blades can become much bigger while also cutting out the cost of transportation.
“Developing larger wind blades is the key to expanding wind energy into areas we wouldn’t think of today as suitable for harvesting wind power. Tapping into moderate wind speed markets, in places like the Midwest, will only help grow the industry in the years to come,” said Wendy Lin, a GE Principal Engineer.
GE also says that the fabric-covered blades will be rugged and long-lasting with no regular maintenance required over a 20-year lifespan.