Researchers gain funding for wind turbine drivetrain work

Six projects have been selected to receive nearly $7.5m (£4.6m) in funding from the US Department of Energy (DoE) to design and test novel wind turbine drivetrains.

Drivetrains, which include a turbine’s gearbox and generator, are at the heart of the turbine and are responsible for producing electricity from the rotation of the blades.

The research and development projects will focus on reducing the cost of wind energy by increasing component reliability or redesigning drivetrains to eliminate the need for some components altogether.

For example, direct-drive generators eliminate the need for a gearbox, which reduces weight, eliminates moving parts and reduces maintenance costs. Increased component reliability means fewer operations and maintenance costs over the lifetime of a wind turbine.

Creating such a superconducting direct-drive generator for large wind turbines will be the goal of researchers at Palm Bay, Florida-based Advanced Magnet Lab, while engineers at Boulder, Colorado-based Boulder Wind Power will test a permanent magnet-based direct-drive generator to validate its performance and reliability in a large, utility-scale turbine.

Reducing maintenance costs is the aim of researchers at Carpinteria, California-based Clipper Windpower, who plan to develop and test a unique drivetrain that uses a chain drive rather than a gearbox. This proposed design may be more easily serviced than conventional gearboxes while being scalable to large-capacity turbines.

Other projects receiving funding aim to increase the amount of energy drivetrains can produce or minimise the use of rare earth materials.

For their part, engineers at Santa Barbara, California-based Dehlsen Associates will design and test components of a direct-drive concept that not only eliminates the need for gearboxes, power electronics, transformers, but also rare earth materials. This design, it is claimed, may also be applicable to marine hydrokinetic — or ocean power — devices.

Also working to reduce a turbine’s reliance on rare earth metals, engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, aim to optimise and test a hybrid design that combines the advantages of geared and direct drives through a single-stage gearbox and a non-permanent magnet generator. The technology developed will be scalable to 10MW, and may be used to retrofit existing 1.5MW turbines.

Lastly, researchers at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York, will design and perform component testing of a 10MW direct-drive generator that also employs superconductors.

Each project will receive up to $700,000 in funding, after which several of the projects will be selected for an additional $2m funding, which will be used to conduct performance tests of specific drivetrain components.

The awards will be issued through the DoE’s Wind and Water Power Program, which works to research, test, develop, and deploy innovative wind energy technologies.