Todd Griffith shows a cross-section of a 50-meter blade. (Photo Courtesy of the Sanders National Laboratories)
Todd Griffith shows a cross-section of a 50-meter blade. (Photo Courtesy of the Sanders National Laboratories)

A new design for gigantic blades released by the Sandia National Laboratories will lead to more effective wind turbines.

Currently, most wind turbines in the U.S. only produce between 1 and 2 megawatts (MW) of power. The Sandia Labs' turbine design, with blades about 165 feet long, are able to produce an unprecedented 50 MW of power, and work over 650-feet offshore.

Funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, researchers from the Sandia Labs, University of Virginia and other institutions carried out research on gigantic Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotors (SUMR). Inspired by the way palm trees move in storms, researchers came up with the idea to use lightweight, segmented trunks that consist of a series of cylindrical shells that can bend in the wind while retaining segment stiffness.

Illustration courtesy of TrevorJohnston.com/Popular Science
Illustration courtesy of TrevorJohnston.com/Popular Science

“Exascale turbines take advantage of economies of scale,” said Todd Griffith, the lead blade designer on the project and technical lead for Sandia’s Offshore Wind Energy Program, in a statement. “The U.S. has great offshore wind energy potential, but offshore installations are expensive, so larger turbines are needed to capture that energy at an affordable cost.”

According to Griffith, the new blades can be manufactured in segments, which would be more cost-effective, and also would eliminate the need for unprecedented-scale equipment in order to transport and assemble blades built as single units.

“At dangerous wind speeds, the blades are stowed and aligned with the wind direction, reducing the risk of damage. At lower wind speeds, the blades spread out more to maximize energy production.” Griffith said in the statement.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are also supporting the project. Corporate advisory partners include Dominion Resources, General Electric Co., Siemens AG and Vestas Wind Systems.