Out in the heat of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories of Albuquerque is undertaking intensive research of vertical axis wind turbines, or VAWTs, for use in offshore wind facilities.
The research is possible thanks to a 2011 Department of Energy grant inviting developments of more innovative rotor technologies for use in U.S. wind power plants.
The $4.1 million project, which began in January, is split roughly in two parts: the first two years are primarily given over to software modeling and theoretical research, while the final three years will call for construction and extensive testing.
VAWTs are not exactly a new thing. Back in the 1970s-80s, VAWTs were actually preferred since they feature simpler designs and proved to be more reliable in the long run. But that was when wind power was still mostly a novelty.
As power generation ramped up, it became clear that horizontal axis wind turbines (HAWTs), with their low-cost rotors, were going to be more cost-effective.
What’s being reassessed now is how viable VAWTs may be in offshore operations. Since offshore facilities are inherently more inaccessible, they also demand greater input costs and resources.
That’s where VAWTs—which provide a simpler technological design, easy scalability across a range of sizes, and greater flotational stability thanks to a lower center of gravity—can change the rules of the game.
Of course, there are several problems to account for.
VAWTs have giant, curved, and fairly complex blades. Iowa State University and TPI Composites are currently conducting research to determine how to construct them on a massive scale while maintaining cost efficiencies, Gizmag reports.
VAWTs also place a lot of strain on their drivetrain. Each blade of a VAWT has two ‘pulses’ of torque, and this is determined by whether it is moving upwind or downwind. As a result, the drivetrain experiences load shifts, which wear it down.
A new design, which researchers are working towards, will be required before any of this can be economically feasible.