Jan 30, 2016 | By Andre

On August 3rd, 2015, US President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new Clean Power Plan. The fundamental goal of the initiative is to reduce our reliance on carbon heavy energy sources like coal and petroleum and shift toward greener, more renewable solutions like wind and solar. It appears that the timing of this initiative couldn’t have been better as electicity generated by wind is already booming and powering 17.5 million homes across the United States. On top of this, at 2.35 cents per kilowatt hour, wind power is proving to be cheaper than the average price of wholesale electricity in much of the country.

Keeping this in mind, the U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced a plan to invest heavily into 3D printing technology with hopes of lowering the cost of wind-turbine blade production by a further 5 percent. Jose Zayas, director of wind and water-power technologies for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as has suggested that this proposed 5 percent in savings, when spanning 13,000 additional blades every year, would equate to $75 million in overall savings.

To get the ball rolling, the agency is committing $1 million with the goal of creating a demonstration blade, constructed using 3D printing technology, by mid-2016. My initial thoughts on what the agency had planned was the introduction of small 3D printed parts to be installed into their traditional blade systems. I was pleasantly to find out that they in fact hoped to manufacture entire blades using 3D printing technology.

David Danielson, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy said that “in the past, 3D printing was very interesting, but it was so slow. It could make parts tha tfit in the palm of your hand. We’re moving from parts to hold in your hands to 40-foot parts.”

By the looks of things, this move towards 3D printing on a large scale is being orchestrated with the help of some very experienced partners. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory, has already used 3D printing to create a 3D printed home and car that run on either solar power or natural gas.

Another partner, Sandia National Laboratories, has been delivering science and technology solutions to assist in national security issues for more than 60 years now. Importantly in this case is that they have also developed Laser Engineered Net Shaping, a process which allows the 3D printing of complex metal parts from powders and Robocasting, a 3D process that produces parts using a ceramic slurry through a pressurized needle.

With the assistance of these two agencies, the cost-savings they hope to accomplish with 3D printing revolves around making current methods more efficient. As things stand, blades are produced from moulds that cost upwards of $10 million each and are designed to last long enough to create around 1,000 blades. The trouble is, wind energy technology has been advancing at such a fast pace that the blades are often out of date before the lifespan of the moulds completes; thus driving up production cost.

Jose Zayas states that “the moulds themselves are a combination of composites and steel. 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.”

Turbine blade Mould as traditionally produced

While it is unclear what 3D printing processes will be used for the production of the turbine blades in the future, the proposed cost savings made possible by going the 3D printed route is great news for an industry that is growing and becoming more efficient every day. If the end-goal is to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, it is initiatives like this that will should make the wide-spread adoption of green energy practices one not only of environmental necessity, but make economical sense as well.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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