As the need for more renewable energy becomes increasingly pressing, engineers around the world face the challenge of designing new technologies capable of generating power with greater efficiency and at lower cost. Among those attempting to tackle this task is Albuquerque-based Sandia National Laboratories, which has recently released details of its latest design concept: an extreme-scale offshore wind turbine capable of generating 50 megawatts of power, featuring rotor blades measuring more than 200 meters (650 feet) in length.
Dubbed the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR), the new turbines are designed to be able to withstand extreme winds experienced during hurricanes or other dramatic weather events, with the capacity to fold up in order to avoid being damaged when gales become too strong. The design is also inspired by the way in which palm trees move in storms, with trunks made of cylindrical sections that allow the structure to bend without compromising strength or stability.
At present, the largest wind turbines in the U.S. are able to generate 8 megawatts of power, using rotary blades that are 80 meters long (262 feet). Producing larger turbines represents a major challenge, since constructing and maintaining blades is very costly once they are above a certain size.
However, Sandia claims its new design will provide greater stability, leading to a reduction in stress or fatigue, thereby reducing maintenance costs and generating improved energy yields relative to price.
Manufacturing the blades is also likely to pose a number of major challenges, and current proposals involve building them in instalments before assembling them onsite, in order to facilitate transportation.
Todd Griffith, who led the project to design the enormous rotor blades, explained that how increasing size allows turbines to “take advantage of economies of scale.”
“The U.S. has great offshore wind energy potential, but offshore installations are expensive, so larger turbines are needed to capture that energy at an affordable cost,” he said in a statement.
If deployed, the new turbines could help the U.S. government reach its target of generating 20 percent of its energy from wind by 2030. Whether they are financially viable, however, remains to be seen.