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Wind energy research center gets NSF funding

A new wind energy research consortium headed by UMass Lowell recently received seed funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help foster long-term collaborations among industry, academia and government and develop an innovative and competitive workforce.

The NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) for Wind Energy, Science, Technology and Research (WindSTAR) will train undergraduate and graduate students who will support and eventually spearhead the design, manufacture, operation and maintenance of wind-energy systems. It will also provide a forum in which wind-turbine manufacturers, component and equipment suppliers, service companies and project developers can work together to solve problems that are of mutual concern.

WindSTAR’s research efforts will be led by UMass Lowell’s Center for Wind Energy (formerly the Wind Energy Research Group), in partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas. Other collaborators include Iowa State University, Southern Maine Community College, the Maine Wind Industry Initiative and the KidWind Project.

“With this award from the NSF, UMass Lowell has become the definitive leader for wind energy research here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and has established a national reputation for excellence in the field of wind power,” says Prof. Christopher Niezrecki in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and WindSTAR principal investigator. “Between contributions from the NSF and university and industry members, the investment into this one-of-a-kind national center will be more than $620,000 in the first year.”

A Clean, Sustainable Alternative

Wind power is a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. It is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed and does not emit greenhouse gases during operation. WindSTAR plans to integrate engineering with fundamental research to help make wind-turbine systems more reliable and less expensive to operate. The center and its partners will focus on such key areas as composite blade manufacturing; foundations, towers and infrastructure; design, modeling and analysis; structural health monitoring and non-destructive inspection and testing; energy storage and wind system planning, siting and operations.

“Wind turbines in the United States are expected to grow up to 170,000 by 2030, and this creates a need to replace and dispose up to 34,000 blades per year in the country, and up to five times as much worldwide,” notes Niezrecki.

The blades, which are made of fiberglass and other composite materials, can span up to nearly 300 feet in length.

“The challenge is that, as the blades get bigger and longer, the likelihood of having structural defects or failures increases,” he explains. “The blades’ lifetime is supposed to be 20 years; right now, they don’t last that long.”

In 2012, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from UMass Lowell and Wichita State University was awarded nearly $1.9 million by the NSF to create the next generation of wind-turbine blades. The team, led by Niezrecki, is developing new sustainable, bio-derived materials to replace existing petroleum-based epoxy resins used in blade manufacturing.