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Energy Efficiency

The University Of Maine Is Making Wind

The University Of Maine Receives A Department of Energy Grant To 3D Print Wind Turbines.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has awarded $2.8 million in funding to University of Maine researchers to develop a faster and more eco-friendly approach to wind turbine production using a 3D printer. 

Using a 3D printer for wind turbine production is a novel approach, but if all goes according to plan it could have a powerful impact on the wind energy sector. The molds and tools used to produce wind turbine blades can cost as much as $10 million. And it’s not a quick process either: production can take 16-20 months before the blades are on the market. The lengthy production time discourages innovation in this growing industry, but the 3D printing method is expected to cut costs and accelerate production.

Developed by Ingersoll Machine Tools, the 3D printer at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center holds the Guinness World Record for largest polymer 3D printer. Previously, the printer was used to make a boat, as well as a 5,000-pound vehicle, dubbed the “3Dirigo.”

“Wind blade tooling is a perfect application for using this giant machine, the biggest machine in the world of its kind,” said Senior Program Manager James Anderson. 

Rather than traditional synthetic materials, the researchers at UMaine will be using “recyclable bio-based materials” combined with wood as the feedstock for the 3D printer. This new, bio-based feedstock is not only expected to save money, but it’s projected to be better for the environment as well.

“By combining cutting-edge 3D printing manufacturing with bio-based feedstocks, our team estimates that new blade development costs can be reduced by 25% to 50% and accelerated by at least 6 months,” said Habib Dagher, executive director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “Molds produced using these materials can be ground up and reused in other molds, making them a more sustainable solution.”

As part of this project, the University has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, DOE’s largest science and energy lab, to further develop the use of wood and bio-based feedstock for 3D printing. Thomas Zacharia, director of ORNL, said his team was “thrilled” with the opportunity to partner with UMaine on the advancement of bio-feedstocks. The partnership has not only been a boon for bio-feedstock research, but it’s also created a new market for Maine’s forest industry. 

There’s also interest in using 3D printing methods for wind turbine base structures. GE Renewable Energy plans to use concrete 3D printing technology to produce bases for its wind turbines on site. And according to 3DPrint, other applications for 3D printing in the wind energy sector could include “optimized metal components, carbon fiber reinforced blades, and the use of concrete 3D printing to produce formwork for wind turbine structures.”

UMaine’s $2.8 million government grant comes on the heels of several other climate-forward initiatives. As part of last December’s $900 billion coronavirus relief package, Congress moved to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of planet-warming chemicals reported to be far worse than carbon dioxide. The package also includes funding for energy-efficient projects and renewable energy tax credit extensions. 

“This is perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed,” said Grant Carlisle, a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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