Did you ever build model airplanes as a kid? After constructing the balsa wood frame, the wings (and just about everything else) is covered in paper or fabric. A similar idea is now being put to use in an effort to create the next generation of wind turbine blades. We already know that the longer the blade, the more power it can produce. The problem is that big blades made in the traditional fashion are too heavy to be practical.
GE is developing a fabric-covered blade design that could substantially lower the overall cost of building a wind turbine. The concept was one of 66 to receive funding in the latest round of ARPA-E grants, and the company claims it could put wind energy on equal footing with fossil fuels without the need for government incentives.
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.
The fabric we’re developing will be tough, flexible, and easier to assemble and maintain,” said Wendy Lin, a GE Principal Engineer and leader on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) project. “It represents a clear path to making wind even more cost competitive with fossil fuels.”
According to GE, this new blade design could reduce blade costs 25%-40%, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies. The $5.6M ARPA-E project will span three years. GE’s blade architecture will be built to achieve a 20 year life with no regular maintenance to tension fabrics required.