U.S. Backing 3D Printing to Develop Cheaper Wind Turbine Blades

The U.S. Energy Department of Energy is investing in 3D printing technology that may shave 5 percent from the cost of making wind-turbine blades.

The agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is investing $1 million to study the systems and to produce a demonstration blade by midyear. Officials estimate the technology could have saved the industry about $75 million last year.

“In the past, 3D printing was very interesting, but it was so slow. It could make parts that can fit in the palm of your hand,” David Danielson, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said in an interview Thursday. Now it’s getting faster and bigger. “We’re moving from parts to hold in your hand to 40-foot parts.”

The agency is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and several companies to develop 3D printing processes for turbine blades that will require less materials and fewer man-hours to produce.

Blades are typically produced using molds that cost as much as $10 million each. They’re designed to make about 1,000 blades, and sometimes are out of date before they reach that target. That drives up production costs.

Additive Manufacturing

“Given the rapid growth of the industry, molds have to change at a higher frequency,” said Jose Zayas, director of wind and water-power technologies for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said in an interview Friday.

“The molds themselves are a combination of composites and steel,” Zayas said. “When you’re going to make something out of a steel, you’re going to start with a big block of steel, and machine it to what you want that product to be. Additive manufacturing is the inverse of it: instead of removing, you’re adding. It starts from the bottom-up, shaped to the product that you want.”

3D printing has already delivered advances in other industries. Oak Ridge manufactured a 3D-printed replica Shelby Cobra car that was displayed at the Energy Department last year. The research labs and companies are developing printers that can produce polymer components 10 times larger than the current generation of industrial additive machines, as the technology is often called.

Wind is becoming an increasingly important part of the U.S. energy mix, with almost 8.6 gigawatts of wind power added to the grid in 2015.

About 13,000 blades were installed in the U.S. last year. “A 5 percent cost reduction of the 13,000 new blades could prompt a $75 million savings to the industry,” Zayas said.

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