GE Joins Forces to Develop 3D-Printed Concrete Bases That Lift Wind Turbines to Record Heights
Sana Kazilbash posted on June 24, 2020 |
The technology boosts renewable energy production while lowering the levelized cost of energy.
GE, COBOD and LafargeHolcim plan to use 3D printing to manufacture concrete bases that could add as much as 80 meters to the height of wind turbines. (Image courtesy of The Verge.)
GE, COBOD and LafargeHolcim plan to use 3D printing to manufacture concrete bases that could add as much as 80 meters to the height of wind turbines. (Image courtesy of The Verge.)

GE Renewable Energy, COBOD and LafargeHolcim are using a combination of 3D printing, materials science and robotics to 3D-print variable height bases for wind turbines directly on site. These concrete bases can range from 10 to 80 meters in height, and the plan is to add a steel tower to the base and give each wind turbine a massive lift.

“It’s a stepping stone into the next generation of wind plants,” says Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center and a senior research fellow of 3D printing at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Until now, most wind turbines have been limited to a height of 80 to 100 meters, as they are typically built in steel or precast concrete. Using 3D-printed concrete technology to create massive bases directly on site will produce hybrid towers reaching 150 to 200 meters—more than double the current average height of wind turbines in the U.S.

According to an NREL analysis, wind speeds are up to 6 miles per hour greater at heights of 160 meters compared to 80 meters. Therefore, taller turbines can capture stronger winds at higher altitudes, while also being able to support larger blades that generate more power. While a 5MW wind turbine at 80 meters generates 15.1GWh annually, the same turbine at 160 meters would generate 20.2GWh—more than 33 percent extra power. That’s the equivalent of powering 5,600 homes versus 4,200 homes per year.

There are a number of limitations that have impeded the installation of such tall wind turbines thus far.

To start off, a wider base is required to support a taller turbine. Concrete bases of a diameter greater than 4.5 meters cannot be transported over roads or rail due to their extremely large dimensions. (The height of highway overpasses, for one, is a key limiting factor.) While it is possible to build bases on site by assembling precast concrete pieces or making molds and pouring concrete, it is a costly, time-consuming and labor-intensive process—not worth the extra energy a taller turbine can harvest.

Transporting heavy materials for wind turbines can be a delicate challenge. (Image courtesy of 3D Printing Industry.)
Transporting heavy materials for wind turbines can be a delicate challenge. (Image courtesy of 3D Printing Industry.)

The partnership’s 3D printing technology will reduce the cost of labor, transportation and materials involved in installing wind turbines. It will also cut down on greenhouse gas emissions that come from hauling gigantic structures to wind farms, as it is much easier to transport a 3D printer to site than a massive concrete base. These cost savings will help speed up the transition to renewable wind energy in new markets.

“It’s an international collaboration that is really aiming to change the world for the better with renewable energy, as well as with more sustainable technologies to make those products,” says Matteo Bellucci, Technology Innovation Leader for GE Renewable Energy. GE is one of the world’s largest wind turbine makers, and will be leading the design, manufacture and commercialization of the wind turbines.

“With our groundbreaking 3D printing technology combined with the competence and resources of our partners, we are convinced that this disruptive move within the wind turbines industry will help drive lower costs and faster execution times, to benefit customers and lower the CO2 footprint from the production of energy,” adds Henrik Lund-Nielsen, founder of COBOD. COBOD is an innovative 3D construction printing company that will be building the 3D printer and optimizing the 3D printing technology for the project.

“Concrete 3D printing is a very promising technology for us, as its incredible design flexibility expands the realm of construction possibilities,” asserts Edelio Bermejo, Head of R&D for LafargeHolcim. LafargeHolcim is a leading building materials company that will be designing the customized concrete materials for the job.

Back in October 2019, the trio successfully printed a 10-meter-tall tower pedestal as their first prototype in Copenhagen, Denmark. The next step involves optimizing the structure of a 20-meter tower section before starting work on an 80-meter tower section. In the upcoming years, the group plans to finalize a production-ready 3D printer, a comprehensive range of materials to scale up production, and a full-scale wind turbine prototype with a 3D-printed base. GE is aiming to begin production by 2023, potentially making it the first company to commercialize wind turbines with 3D-printed concrete bases.

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