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GE designing '40% cheaper' turbine blades

GE is developing a new turbine blade design using architectural fabric that could reduce construction and assembly costs compared with conventional materials

Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fibreglass, which is heavier and more labour and time-intensive to manufacture

US conglomerate General Electric (GE) is developing a new turbine blade design that it believes could reduce costs up to 40 per cent and put wind energy on an economic par with fossil fuels.

The product uses an architectural fabric which reduces construction and assembly costs which is cheaper than fibreglass. The new design could reduce costs between 25-40 per cent, according to the firm.

“The fabric we’re developing will be tough, flexible, and easier to assemble and maintain. It represents a clear path to making wind even more cost competitive with fossil fuels,” said GE engineer Wendy Lin.

GE’s research will focus on the use of architectural fabrics, which would be wrapped around a metal spaceframe, resembling a fishbone. Fabric would be tensioned around ribs which run the length of the blade and specially designed to meet the demands of wind blade operations.

Conventional wind blades are constructed out of fibreglass, which is heavier and more labour and time-intensive to manufacture. Current technology doesn’t easily allow for construction of turbines that have rotor diameters exceeding 120 meters because of design, manufacturing, assembly, and transportation constraints.

Wider, longer wind blades are tougher to move and manoeuver, and moulds which form the clamshell fiberglass structure cost millions of dollars to acquire.

Advancements in blade technology will help spur the development of larger, lighter turbines that can capture more wind at lower wind speeds. GE’s new fabric-based technology would all but eliminate these barriers, the company claims.

With this new approach to making wind blades, GE believes that components could be built and assembled on site, meaning design engineers would no longer have to concern themselves with manufacturing and transportation limitations.

“Developing larger wind blades is the key to expanding wind energy into areas we wouldn’t think of today as suitable for harvesting wind power, says Lin, who adds that tapping into moderate wind speed markets will only help grow the industry in the years to come.

The use of fabrics to reduce weight and provide a cost-effective cover dates back to the World War I era, when they were used on airplanes. Over the years fabric has proved to be rugged and reliable. GE has already begun using this spaceframe/tension fabric design in the construction of wind towers for better aesthetics, cost, and protection.

The industry estimates that to achieve the US goal of 20 per cent wind power, turbine blades would need to grow by 50 per cent. Lighter fabric blades could make this goal attainable, believes GE.