Aug 1, 2016 | By Alec

As today’s society consumes more energy than ever before in the history of the world, alternative and more efficient energy sources are more needed than ever. Traditional energy sources, such as fossil fuels, are slowly depleting – so the time for wind, water and solar could be just around the corner. But costs are always the deciding factor, and the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) has therefore turned to 3D printing to reduce development costs for wind turbines. And as wind blades can easily be more than 40 feet in length, AMO has started building molds made from six feet tall 3D printed sections that can be used to cast a complete blade. Could we be looking at the future of clean energy?

The Advanced Manufacturing Office is part of the US Department of Energy, and is especially dedicated to bringing new manufacturing solutions to clean energy projects involving industry partners, small businesses, universities, regional entities, and other stakeholders. As a result, 3D printing is often on the table, but we never imagined that they would be applying it on such a gigantic scale.

Specifically, this gigantic 3D printed wind blade mold was developed in collaboration with the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office (WWPTO), the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory and corporate partner TPI Composites in an attempt to bring new and clean manufacturing methods to the wind turbine industry. Completed just in time for Global Wind Day 2016, which was held on June 15, it underlines the fact that the wind energy sector has only just begun exploring the most cost-effective manufacturing options available.

Of course you might ask: what is a 3D printed wind blade mold good for? As the AMO team explained, 3D printing was brought into this project to reduce the cost and energy that is required to prototype and manufacture the next generation of wind turbines. “[We can] increase our nation’s competitiveness through manufacturing clean energy technologies. Advancements in 3D printing have made it a valuable tool for reducing waste, decreasing lead time, and offering more flexibility in design. 3D printing systems have also grown in size and capabilities as technology has improved,” they argue.

But a project of this size obviously requires a similarly oversized 3D printer, and the AMO team were fortunately able to gain access to the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) 3D printer, which is in operation at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times faster than most other industrial 3D printers, it also has a build space that is several times larger than those of most competitors. And that size is certainly necessary, as a complete research blade is 42 feet in length (about 13 meters).

While even the BAAM 3D printer cannot work on such a scale, it did provide a realistic opportunity to explore this project on a practical level. First, the researchers developed a CAD model of the research blade, which was essentially a typical blade design that was inverted into a mold and cut up into 3D printable sections, complete with assembly holes and heating air ductwork. These sections were subsequently 3D printed in sections of up to six feet in size.

Once these sections were completed, they were covered with a layer of fiberglass laminate and smoothed, to create a compatible surface. “Each mold segment is then installed on a frame and outfitted with a hot air blower, temperature controller, and thermocouples. This innovative air heating technique saves energy and eliminates the labor-intensive step of hand-laying heating wires which would traditionally be embedded in the mold. The air blowers are also reusable for future molds,” the AMO researchers say.

Once assembled, this gigantic 3D printed mold features an even, very smooth and vacuum tight surface that is perfect for creating wind blades – but which are far more cheaply made than conventional wind blades. According to AMO, several research blades were already made using this 3D printed mold. Could this be cost-saving breakthrough wind energy has been waiting for?



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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