Feb. 9, 2015 | By Alec

We already knew that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize life in third world countries, as it’s a manufacturing technology that’s cheap, easy-to-use, easy to transport and can easily produce whatever you need. It’s therefore hardly surprising that several ongoing projects are specifically aimed at third world communities, like this project to 3D print safe and reliable roofing for slum houses.

But did you know that 3D printers, even a regular desktop FDM 3D printer, can even be used to bring electricity to remote communities in the jungle? And no, I’m not talking about 3D printing copper wiring or anything like that. Instead, the Canadian entrepreneur and PhD student at the University of Windsor, Kyle Bassett, has come up with an ingenious project to 3D print small wind turbines that produce enough electricity for basic needs, such as powering up your phone.

His project is called "A Small Wind Turbine to Make a Big Difference", and as you can see in the photos above, his 3D wind turbines have a bit of an unusual shape. That’s because, as Kyle explained to 3ders.org, his design has been optimized for the generation of power in whatever weather and whatever locations.

"Our wind turbine design - specifically the sail blade aspect- is a combination of ancient wind mill designs and modern high speed sailboat technology. The blades catch the wind at low speed but can actually accelerate beyond the speed of the wind via the aerodynamic principle of lift," David explains to us. "The blades are configured in a vertical-axis arrangement which allows for the turbine to be driven by winds coming from any direction. The blades convert the wind energy to kinetic energy and a small generator converts the kinetic energy into electrical form - the electrical energy can then be conditioned for direct USB charging or for charging a portable LiPo battery pack."

Above: some renders from their second design iteration

This clever design was developed on a trial-and-error basis with one purpose in mind: to simplify the manufacturing process of a small wind turbine capable of powering cell phones and flashlights. "I lived in a rural villages in Central America for about 18 months after my Master's degree and saw an overwhelming need for 5V USB power throughout developing countries," he says. "We want to help address that need with sustainable energy devices and the wind turbine is our first project.  Having built many wind turbines in the past this seemed like a logical first step. We are also developing 3D printed Hydro turbines and even components for geothermal systems."

And during another job in the architecture industry, Kyle soon realized that 3D printing would be a perfect manufacturing technology to produce these machines. "Working with the printer at work inspired me to consider how I could use 3D printing in my previous renewable energy research. 3D printing really changed everything for me in terms of design and engineering," He told us.

And so far, his prototypes have been largely 3D printed, including the entire frame, the rotor connectors, the blade hubs and blade ends. "Basically all the parts which would be the most difficult and expensive to manufacture via other means," Kyle says. Only a handful of other components are then added (a few pieces of tubing, a stepper motor, hardware, and the sails). Though your first thought might be ‘why aren’t the sails or blades 3D printed too?’, that’s because they would take far longer to 3D print than all the other parts combined, while this alternative isn’t more expensive at all. Kyle therefore chose to stick with a sail design for now.

To produce all of these components, Kyle has so far been relying on a slightly modified PrintrBot Simple Metal setup, printing in PLA. "For the large prints where zero warp is critical I print on green painters tape with glue stick and use a heat gun to preheat the bed and warm the print area," he says, and the results have been great so far.

While you might think that biodegradable PLA could be inefficient in a clammy rainforest environment, this hasn’t been an issue so far. "The biodegradability of the PLA plastic hasn't been an issue in our first few rounds of test prototypes but we need to move to more durable materials very soon," Kyle answers. "Anyone out there want to donate an unthethered ABS-capable printer to a good cause?"

This great project is still very much in the Research and Development stages, but is progressing well. While Kyle found it difficult to attach a price tag to future product for now, he hopes that the costs can remains somewhere in the under $300 range.

In the coming months, Kyle hopes to refine his project as much as possible. To that end, he has just launched a webpage called rmrdtech.com, where updates and progress will be shared with the world, with an open source mindset. "We want to be very honest and transparent about the progress of the project as we move forward and the website will be a great tool for sharing test results and field testing videos," he says. "We will also be giving away a few prototypes from the beta production run so early adopters and makers have the chance to help us with their feedback and input. So keep an eye out on our website for that announcement."

And if all goes according to plan, this 3D printed wind turbine will launch on Kickstarter in the spring to gather the funds to move into production. As this clever wind turbine is environmentally-friendly, a perfect 3D printing application, and capable of increasing the quality of life in the third world, we truly hope it does well.

For more, watch Kyle talk about his project here:

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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