Made in Scotland: Ultralight wind turbine blade promises greener energy

Posted on 2 Jul 2020 by Jonny Williamson

A ‘game-changing’ technology adapted from the sailing industry has been used to develop a lightweight offshore wind turbine blade capable of producing almost 10% more energy than conventional designs.

The UK is the world leader in offshore wind, with more installed capacity than any other country. Already, offshore wind powers the equivalent of 4.5 million homes annually and is set to power more than 30% of British electricity by 2030.

But industry is always looking for ways to innovate, reduce cost and increase efficiency.

ACT Blade's innovative wind turbine blade design undergoing testing by ORE Catapult.

ACT Blade’s innovative wind turbine blade design undergoing testing by ORE Catapult

A new technology, developed by Edinburgh-based ACT Blade, involves replacing the heavier glass fibre design traditionally used for wind turbine blades with a lighter composite wrapped in a sail-like textile shell

This makes the blade up to a third lighter compared with typical fibreglass designs and can be made 10% longer, which, in turn, generates up to 9% more energy from the same wind turbine.

Its reduced manufacturing costs makes the technology a potential disruptor for the offshore wind industry, helping to make offshore wind – already one of the cheapest forms of large-scale energy generation in the UK – even cheaper and easier to harness.

CEO of ACT Blade, Dr Sabrina Malpede explained: “The ACT Blade is not only the lightest but also the most modular blade. That means we use components that can be manufactured in parallel, using smaller and therefore cheaper tooling, reducing costs by 60%.

“It also requires lower space – its factory will be 47% smaller than those of conventional blades – and lower energy which makes the manufacturing process less expensive compared with that of conventional blades.”

CEO Sabrina Malpede in front of wind farm in Edinburgh - © Wattie Cheung

CEO Sabrina Malpede in front of wind farm in Edinburgh – © Wattie Cheung 

 A game-changer for offshore energy

The first prototype produced under the Innovate UK-funded project was manufactured and tested in collaboration with a consortium of northern research partners, including:

  • the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC),
  • the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC), sister centre to the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), both part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS),
  • and the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult

Lightweighting refers to the process of making products or parts lighter to reduce costs, energy expenditure and carbon emissions. The principles are of interest across multiple sectors from aerospace and automotive to defence and renewables.

The AMRC undertook the Finite Element Analysis (FEA) work to validate the new blade design. This allowed its composite centre technical lead, John Halfpenny, and his team to locate potential problems in the design, including areas of tension and weak spots, before producing CAD data to optimise the structural design of the prototype.

They also designed patterns, moulds and associated fixtures to manufacture the first blade.

ACT Blade leaving the LMC

ACT Blade leaving the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC)

Turbine blades are being made longer to generate more energy, but are becoming heavy and expensive to produce, install and maintain. John explains: “The ACT Blade is lighter, lower cost, has increased efficiency and will be easier to recycle.

“This is a real game-changer for offshore renewable energy with considerable benefits to be gained – not only by new wind farm developers but for existing wind farm operators – to improve performance, reduce costs and cut carbon emissions in the manufacturing process.

“It is a great example of how technology can be adapted from one sector to create something truly ground-breaking in another industry.”

Commercialising a Eureka moment

ACT Blade, founded in 2015, developed its novel blade concept in response to an innovation challenge launched by ORE Catapult, tasking companies to improve the performance of wind turbine blades and enable industry to ‘generate cleaner, greener power in ever deeper waters’.

Dr Malpede, who made her name designing super-fast sails for yachts, responded to the challenge with a game-changing idea: take the light, durable structure of yacht sails and adapt the technology to improve the performance of offshore wind turbine blades.

The 13m prototype was completed in February 2020 and testing began soon after with static tests completed at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s National Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth in April.

Results showed the blade could withstand extreme loads and every type of direction and twist, going beyond those predicted for an in-service turbine.

Dr Stephen Wyatt, director of Research and Disruptive Innovation at ORE Catapult said: “We’ve come a long way since Sabrina first answered one of our Innovation Challenges back in 2015, and I am excited to see the journey ahead.”

The blade is now undergoing further testing and in the coming months ACT Blade is expected to work with the Energy Technology Centre to prepare for installation of three blades on a working wind turbine at the Myres Hill Wind Farm in Scotland.

*Header image courtesy of David Will from Pixabay, all images courtesy of ACT Blade