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News Link • Energy

Building Bigger, Better Wind Turbines

• Tyler Hamilton via TechnologyReview.com
 

Wind power is one of the fastest-growing forms of power generation in the United States, with more capacity added onshore than coal and nuclear generation combined over the past four years. But to sustain that high growth rate into the next decade, the industry will have to start tapping offshore wind resources, creating a need for wind turbines that are larger, lower-maintenance, and deliver more power with less weight.

To support research in this area, the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $7.5 million to six projects, each aiming to develop advanced drivetrains for wind turbines up to 10 megawatts in size. Five of the projects use direct-drive, or gearless, drivetrain technology to increase reliability, and at least two use superconductivity technologies for increased efficiencies and lower weight.

Current designs can't be scaled up economically. Most of the more than 25,000 wind turbines deployed across the United States have a power rating of three megawatts or less and contain complex gearbox systems. The gearboxes match the slow speed of the turbine rotor (between 15 to 20 rotations per minute) to the 2,000 rotations per minute required by their generators. Higher speeds allow for more compact and less expensive generators, but conventional gearboxes—a complex interaction of wheels and bearings—need regular maintenance and are prone to failure, especially at higher speeds.

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