February 2, 2021 

By Ramona du Houx

The University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center has been awarded $2.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to develop a rapid, low-cost additive manufacturing — 3D printing — solution for fabricating large, segmented windmill blade molds. 

Currently, innovation in large windmill blade technology is a very costly and time-intensive process. Traditional molds and tooling for large blades can cost upward of $10 million, and it can take 16–20 months to fabricate them, thereby stifling innovation in this growing market.

“Very large wind blade molds will be printed on the world’s largest polymer 3D printer located at the UMaine Composites Center using recyclable bio-based materials reinforced with wood,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

The materials used in building the molds will be made from resin from Maine’s forests and not synthetic fibers, lowering the cost while being environmentally sound.

“By combining cutting-edge 3D printing manufacturing with bio-based feedstocks, our team estimates that new blade development costs can be reduced by 25 percent to 50 percent and accelerated by at least 6 months. Molds produced using these materials can be ground up and reused in other molds, making them a more sustainable solution,” confirmed Dr. Dagher.

The 3D printer at the University made its public début in 2019 when Dr. Dagher, and his team, unveiled a printed plastic boat manufactured for the Navy. However, the machine was actually designed for this windmill blade mold work.

“Wind blade tooling is a perfect application for using this giant machine,” said UMaine Senior Program Manager James Anderson.

In addition, the UMaine Composites Center will collaborate on a $4 million award to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to apply robotic deposition of continuous reinforcing fibers in windmill blades.

“The University of Maine remains a leader in additive manufacturing and wind energy technology, and this funding will harness researchers’ expertise in both areas,” said US Senators Susan Collins and Angus King in a Jan. 28 announcement of the award. “We are thrilled that the Department of Energy continues to invest in UMaine’s cutting-edge research and prioritizes the advancement of our state’s clean energy economy and the creation of good-paying jobs.” 

For over 15 years University of Maine researchers and students, headed by Dr. Habib Dagher, have been working on nanocellulose, and composites research and development. They launched North America’s first successful floating offshore wind turbine platform, the VolturnUS. Their innovation has inspired entrepreneurs to launch companies based on their patented, proven designs. UMaine’s Compostie Center is a key component to help grow the clean energy economy in Maine.

UMaine is also known as a world leader in cellulose nanofiber (CNF) technology, including development of nano- and micro-cellulose reinforced thermoplastic composites. These new bio-based materials promise mechanical properties similar to aluminum at lower fabricated costs. Carbon fiber reinforced ABS thermoplastic feedstocks, which are widely used in large scale 3D printing, cost more than $5 per pound. By incorporating bio-based materials derived from wood, the cost of the feedstock can be reduced to less than $2 per pound.

In addition, the UMaine Composites Center will collaborate on a $4 million award to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to apply robotic deposition of continuous reinforcing fibers in windmill blades.

The molds will incorporate 3D printed heating elements using a new technology developed at ORNL. Control of mold surface temperatures is a critical mold manufacturing requirement, and the new ORNL technology enables robotic deposition of heating elements, reducing mold fabrication time and cost.

“Oak Ridge National Laboratory will apply expertise in additive manufacturing, carbon fiber technology and materials science to advance the use of 3D printing in wind energy applications,” said ORNL’s Xin Sun, interim associate laboratory director for energy science and technology. “We look forward to collaborating with UMaine to optimize these clean energy technologies to benefit the environment and boost the economy.”

The outcome of the proposed research is to transform mold production as a key enabler for more rapid and more cost-effective large windmill turbine blade development. In addition, TPI Composites and Siemens Gamesa (SGRE) are partnering with the UMaine Composites Center on the project. A successful demonstration will put both SGRE and TPI in a position to transition the additive manufacturing solution into practice. 

SGRE is the world’s leading supplier of offshore wind turbines and TPI produces approximately 18 percent of the world’s wind blades. Ingersoll Machine Tools, the 3D printer manufacturer, and Techmer PM, the cellulosic-thermoplastic feedstock compounder, also are on the team, providing the ability to scale-up both equipment and feedstock production.

“We’ve assembled a world class team. If anybody can meet this challenge, it’s this team. I’m really excited to work with everybody,” said Dr. Dagher.

The team will begin the three-year project when it signs its contract with the Department of Energy in February. Researchers at the UMaine Composites Center on the project include Dr. Dagher, James Anderson, John Arimond and Doug Gardner.

Offshore wind farm in the UK. courtesy photo

Clean energy, especially offshore wind, is a good investment

Spending in upstream oil and gas has been reduced by 32 percent. Goldman Sachs believes the sharp downturn in 2020 will speed up the energy transition. In turn, this will create 15-20 million new jobs and $16 trillion of infrastructure investment by 2030. While hydrocarbons have been lucrative, green energy is growing as a safe investment. Researchers have found that green firms achieve better annual returns and reduced volatility.

With a power potential of almost double the nation’s current electricity use sitting idly off the Atlantic coastline, America’s vast offshore wind resource, once unleashed, will create thousands of new maritime and manufacturing jobs for coastal communities at a time when economic growth is needed most. American Wind Energy Association  (AWEA) research found developing 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind could deliver up to $25 billion per year in new economic activity and support up to 83,000 new, well-paying jobs by 2030. 

By continuing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s leasing process, the U.S. could unlock $1.7 billion in U.S. Treasury revenue by 2022, according to a recent study conducted by Wood Mackenzie, released by AWEA, the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, and the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind.

In the UK from 2016 to 2019 as the industry has scaled up, the price of offshore electricity was halved. While the first turbines produced less than a megawatt each, today’s churn out closer to ten, said Stephen Wyatt, research and innovation director at the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, with a new wind turbine now installed in British waters at the rate of one a day.

About the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center

The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center is a world leader in composite materials R&D. Founded through the National Science Foundation in 1996, it is housed in a 100,000–square-foot laboratory with 260 employees. The center has received top international awards for its research and has over 500 clients and partners worldwide. A number of private Maine businesses have spun off from the center’s research. The center pioneered the development of floating offshore wind turbines by designing and deploying the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the U.S. in 2013. The center houses the Alfond W2 (Wind-Wave) Ocean Engineering Laboratory, a unique facility with a high-accuracy wind generator over a multi-directional wave basin, as well as the Offshore Wind Laboratory, the second-largest wind blade testing facility in the U.S. In 2019, the center commissioned the largest polymer 3D printer in the world. It won Guinness World Records for 3Dirigo, the largest 3D printed boat in the world, a 25-foot-long 5,000-pound patrol vessel that was printed in 72 hours. 

About AWEA
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is the national trade association of the U.S. wind energy industry, the largest source of renewable energy in the country. With 1,000 member companies and over 114,000 jobs in the U.S. economy, AWEA serves as a powerful voice for how wind works for America. Members include global leaders in wind power and energy development, turbine manufacturing, and component and service suppliers.