MASS Clean Energy Center - Large Turbine Testing Facility
Each year, over thirty million cars cross the Tobin Bridge. Built in 1949, the famous bridge links Charlestown with downtown Boston. We've all been over the bridge many times, but never realized that an engineering test facility dedicated to carbon-free power was located just below. Built in cooperation with the US Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Lab in 2011, the test facility is a key part of the renewable energy business in the U.S.
To give you an idea about how big the blades used in modern wind turbines are, the image at the upper left shows Trent and Mattheus standing by a standard "bolt circle." This is the size of the base of a normal blade. After visiting the secret (no joke, and no photos allowed) inside of the facility, Arty noticed an old blade lying in the parking lot. One thing led to another, and we got permission to climb inside of it. Yup, the blades are really big, as Robby and Mattheus can attest! Below is an image from Arty showing the internal support structure of this particular blade.
When companies build blades for wind turbines, they use computer models to build what they think will be the best, strongest, and lightest shape. The value of one of these blades is around $500,000 and up, but despite the cost, the designers still need to see if the real product performs as planned.
That's where the test center comes in - blades are pushed, pulled, vibrated at frequencies that make them bounce up and down, and subjected to decades worth of abuse in a matter of weeks. The whole point is to understand how the blades will behave, and even more important, to see if the blades will survive for their planned twenty year lifespan without doing anything unexpected.
The facility is huge - "normal" blades are now around 60 meters long - as Trent said, "The pictures of the facility just do not do any justice. I was blown away by the sheer size
of the testing area and especially the turbine blades themselves. The fact that the 56 meter blades were made from fiberglass was also a surprise to me, which reinforces the importance of proper materials engineering and structural design." The reason for going big is simple - taller turbines capture more air, and not just a little - the simple formula for the area of a circle explains why longer blades capture a LOT more energy, making the carbon-free power from wind cheaper and cheaper.
As senior Robby Huang observed, "the field trip to the Massachusetts Green Energy Center reshaped my understanding towards wind turbines. I used to picture them as towers with thin one-layer vanes on them. In reality, the canes are much heavier, thicker, and bigger in size than I imagined. Furthermore, I assumed that people examined the quality of the vanes simply doing angle measures with precise equipments. The reality is that the company use “brute force” to do fatigue test. One last thing that impressed me was the group cooperates with U Mass Lowell to develop the dot paint on the turbine to model the movement of turbines during the tests."
Thanks to Mattheus Carpenter, who found CEC for our group, and who did all the initial outreach to George, our host. As Mattheus said, "As an aspiring renewable energy engineer, I could not have asked for a more fulfilling afternoon. This is exactly the sort of engagement that we need more of right now to inspire the younger generation, one which I am proud to be part of, to acknowledge that we are in fact beginning to solve today’s problems for a better tomorrow. I appreciate that the solutions for combatting climate change and creating an energy-independent USA are already being worked on by such forward thinking individuals as Mr. Blagdon."
A huge thanks goes out to Engineer George Blagdon, who took several hours out of his day to explain the center, the fast-changing industry of wind, and how engineers test huge systems like these turbine blades - it was an amazing experience for all of us, and left us really excited for the future.