The school of engineering at the University of Maine has received a substantial amount of funding to build wind-turbines through the use of 3D printing. Photo by Olivia Schanck

The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center made headlines last year when they used the world’s largest polymer 3D printer to construct a functioning watercraft. Now, this same 3D printer will be used to manufacture wind turbine blades with a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has awarded this $2.8 million grant to the Advanced Structures and Composites cCenter so that they may utilize 3D-printing technology to develop wind turbine blades. The process of creating these blades through 3D polymer printing is both cheaper and faster than typical manufacturing processes.

3D-printing technology also utilizes recyclable materials, which are beneficial to the quest for renewable energy which the UMaine Composites Center aids in. The center also has hopes that the grant will allow for an advancement in manufacturing research in the near future. The UMaine Composites Center will also be working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the application of robotic deposition of continuous reinforcement fibers in the wind blades. 

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King spoke to the media about this award during the initial announcement on Jan. 28.

The University of Maine remains a leader in additive manufacturing and wind energy technology, and this funding will harness researchers’ expertise in both areas. We are thrilled that the Department of Energy continues to invest in UMaine’s cutting-edge research and prioritizes the advancement of our state’s clean energy economy and the creation of good-paying jobs,” Collins said about the grant. 

Typically, the manufacturing process for wind blades costs approximately $10 million. The blades also take anywhere between 16-20 months to manufacture. 

The UMaine Composites Center plans to utilize bio-based materials in order to cut down on expenses and make the manufacturing process more environmentally friendly and efficient. The executive director of the Composites Center, Habib Dagher elaborated on this process at the same announcement.

“By combining cutting-edge 3D printing manufacturing with bio-based feedstocks, our team estimates that new blade development costs can be reduced by 25% to 50% and accelerated by at least 6 months,” Dagher said. “Molds produced using these materials can be ground up and reused in other molds, making them a more sustainable solution.” With both costs and sustainability taken into account,  the Composites Center’s work is considered groundbreaking in the realm of renewable energy resource research. The bio-based resources which Dagher speaks of include materials made of cellulose nanofiber technology, which has been used to develop reinforced thermoplastic composites and feedstocks for the 3D printer. These bio-based feedstocks cost $3 less on average than the typical Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic feedstocks used in other 3D printers.

The development and practice of these manufacturing techniques are the first step in a much grander journey to the future of renewable energy resources. The research that the UMaine Composites Center is engaging in will be useful in the potential development of the U.S.’s first offshore wind research facility. The Composites Center is also joined in this venture by two major manufacturers in the field of wind turbine development. TPI Composites is responsible for the production of 18% of the world’s wind turbine blades, and Siemens Gamesa is a leading supplier of offshore wind turbines.

Jordan Bessette, a third-year mechanical engineering technologies student, spoke about the importance of renewable energy research at UMaine.

“I think given the current state of our earth, it is of the utmost importance that we utilize every resource we have to help study and slow the rate of climate change,” Bessette said. “One of the reasons I chose UMaine was because I toured the facility researching wind turbines… and I was excited to one day have an opportunity to have a part in the research they’re doing.”

Bessette expressed her excitement about the potential for new breakthroughs in renewable energy research, and the opportunities it presents for students who are interested in preserving the environment.

“I think this grant will be an incredible opportunity not only to do more for the environment, but also to get more students involved in the maintenance of our world,” Bessette continued. “I think seeing the forests and landscapes in Maine especially, any student would jump at the opportunity to preserve the environment.”

The grant will help build the foundations for many years of developments and research in renewable energy at the UMaine Composites Center.