Tools for the job

Engineers will soon be able to develop wind turbines more cheaply, thanks to a range of versatile technologies, says Robert Lee

Although research into renewable energy technology has been ongoing for some time, the rapid depletion of fossil fuel reserves has set a critical time-frame on the global adoption of alternative energy sources.

The good news for engineers is that the tools and technologies required for the completion of this task are becoming much more accessible. Through modular instrumentation, a precise, high-speed measurement platform is now available at much lower cost.

Technologies such as field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and remote monitoring allow advanced control systems to be implemented more cost effectively. The performance and flexibility of these tools can then be maximised by integration with high level, intuitive graphical programming software.

This approach, defined as graphical system design, provides engineers with a technique to develop custom-made, versatile solutions to complex problems faced when trying to design, develop and improve technologies and processes that result in environmental and economic benefits.

One area where this approach can have significant benefits is in the continuing development of wind turbine designs. Monitoring of power quality, structural integrity, gearbox performance, noise/acoustic emissions and electrical output provide engineers with a full complement of measurements to identify possible improvements for the next generation of turbine.

One example of this approach being applied is at America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — the primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency R&D in the US — which is investigating the effects of wind turbulence on turbine structures. Through this examination, NREL aims to improve the cost and efficiency of the turbine by removing the need to ‘over design’ certain components, often employed by turbine engineers to ensure reliability in use.

The laboratory designed a system to acquire, scale, display and store multi-channel meteorological data from the turbine structure and then, using GPS-based time stamping, synchronised these measurements with turbulent airflow readings. To save time during the process, it chose a combined software and hardware system from National Instruments based on the M Series data acquisition platform and NI LabVIEW graphical development software.

The investigation provided NREL with highly significant quantitative data about turbulence effects, which can now be adopted and used in future turbine design. However, data monitoring of this kind can also be adopted as a form of feedback for the advanced control required for turbine operation.

Turbine control algorithms are often complex and have traditionally been implemented in the form of expensive custom embedded systems. But the evolution of off-the-shelf embedded control systems, which use technologies especially suited to advanced control like FPGAs, means that integration with feedback measurements is easier than ever.

The flexibility of this technology means control algorithms can be modified or even completely replaced during use. And by using this type of platform engineers can make measurements and fix problems within a system currently in use.

As society’s need for green energy becomes ever more pressing, the world needs talented, innovative engineers and scientists to ensure success. Political movements and discussions will have a significant role in reducing the effects of global warming, but the burden of implementation rests on engineers’ shoulders.

The importance of engineers is unparalleled. Not only must they identify and implement improvements to existing systems, but they are also responsible for developing solutions to brand new problems. If we are to succeed, we require the tools to measure the performance of existing systems and our impact on the environment, and then seamlessly design, prototype and deploy effective solutions.

By using an approach such as graphical system design, engineers will have the tools to measure a problem and then fix it.

Robert Lee is technical marketing engineer at National Instruments UK and Ireland