FASTBLADE composite structures test facility takes shape at Rosyth

Next month (July 2020) will see the start of major engineering works on FASTBLADE, a state-of-the-art composite testing facility being built by engineering giant Babcock International and the University of Edinburgh.

FASTBLADE's structural reaction frame will hold composite in place and manage the forces generated as these components are cycled using hydraulic rams

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)  and the University of Edinburgh, the £4.1m facility - based at Babcock’s Rosyth site near Edinburgh - will use cutting edge digital and hydraulic technology to assess the performance of composite structures used in industries such as tidal energy, marine, transport, nuclear and aerospace.

Babcock’s engineering and technology director Neil Young told The Engineer that the facility – which is expected to be up and running next year (2021) will initially be used for lifetime fatigue testing of renewable energy tidal turbine blades.

Because of the density of water, and the turbulent forces that they are exposed to, these turbine blades are particularly challenging from an engineering point of view. Young said that the new facility will enable engineers to test and validate new blade designs by cycling them through the equivalent of an entire 20-year design life in just 3 months.

The backbone of the system is a huge structural reaction frame (measuring 16.2m long, 2.5m wide and 7.1m high) that will hold clients’ structures and manage the forces generated as these components are put through their paces by FASTBLADE’s hydraulic rams.  “It will have to take millions of cycles,” said Young,  “normal steel structures wouldn’t be designed for that so it’s a very special design, a lot of FEA analysis and work has been done by the engineering teams to optimise that design. ”

The loads are delivered by a regenerative hydraulic actuation system developed at Edinburgh University. This is capable of over 1000 litres per minute of bi-directional flow and recovers energy between cycles to reduce the energy consumed and ultimately reduce the cost of testing

Whilst initial applications will be focused on tidal turbine blades, Young said that the rig has been designed to be versatile and reconfigurable so that it could be used to test a range of different composite structures in the future. “Any composite structure that requires fatigue testing can be put on it,” he said. “That could be a mast for a submarine for instance, or composite bridges.”

He added that the facility is expected to lead to significant advances in the understanding of how large composite structures behave, and will help drive developments in the management of assets that feature large composite structures. “There’s not enough known about composite structures at the moment to do it by calculation alone – hence you need a physical facility to back up the design,” he said.

The development of the facility supports the digital skills agenda for both parties, and follows the University’s signing of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal in 2018, which aims to increase research-based collaboration and innovation between universities and industry across the region. Young said that whilst the application of digital technologies can sometimes seem a bit abstract, having a real physical facility in place will enable both Edinburgh students and Babcock apprentices to access a tangible example of engineering data in action. “We can put our apprentices in, and they can sit there and work with the teams and understand how to really apply data and what it means,” he said.

Professor Conchúr Ó Brádaigh, Head of the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This collaboration is a real opportunity to develop the next generation of engineers that industry will need and will be a resource for apprentices and engineering students to capture real-time data from industrial-scale equipment in the classroom."