A desire for cleaner, more sustainable energy has been steadily leading the world toward more reliance on what nature provides. One of the most visible examples in this day and age is the wind turbine. We have known about the benefits of wind energy from the earliest days of 9th-century windmills. However, it was not until the late 20th century that we began pursuing wind power as a viable replacement for power generated by fossil fuels.
According to Smart Energy International, there are some 340,000 wind turbines now active around the world. China is responsible for as much as one-third of all wind generation capacity while, half a world away, Scotland generates enough electricity from wind to power millions of homes.
At the center of it all is carbon fiber. In fact, Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites says carbon fiber is pushing wind energy further than ever before. As wind turbines increase in size and capacity, designers are relying on carbon fiber as their primary building material.
It’s All in the Blades
Whether you are talking windmills or turbines, efficiently producing power is all in the blades. It is the blade that picks up the wind and moves with it. Blades are the engine that drive turbines and produce electricity. Wind is their fuel. As such, the more wind blades can capture, the more energy they can produce.
Fiberglass was the original material of choice for the modern wind turbine. It served its purpose well, laying the foundation for modern turbines that are bigger and more productive. Yet Fiberglas does have its limits. You can only build fiberglass blades so long before they become too heavy to be practical. That is where carbon fiber comes in.
Most people are aware that carbon fiber is lighter than steel and aluminum. It is also lighter than fiberglass. As such, turbine designers can create longer blades while remaining inside known weight constraints. Longer blades mean more surface for capturing the wind, which translates into more energy produced.
No Rest for the Weary
Designers and engineers have come a long way with their turbine designs over the years. If they are weary from all that work, it’s understandable. But there is no rest for the weary. As the world continues pressing forward in its desire for more sustainable energy, those same designers and engineers are being called on to build bigger and better turbines.
Again, it is all about the blades. Each blade has a spar cap that runs along its length. The spar cap is essentially a support beam that gives the blade its structural integrity. Caps have traditionally been made with fiberglass. In recent years, designers have turned to carbon fiber instead. But now we are also seeing hybrid products that combine both fiberglass and carbon fiber.
The need for ever larger and more powerful wind turbines is forcing engineers to move even beyond glass and carbon fiber hybrids. They are now working on developing even stronger composite materials that will afford even larger blades. Perhaps carbon nano tubes will be instrumental in designing the next generation of wind turbines.
Also on the horizon are new nano fibers made from plant-based materials. Flax, carrots, and many other plants are being used to create fiber-based fabrics that can be combined with resins to create materials as strong and resilient as glass and carbon fiber.
In the meantime, carbon fiber is the material of choice for bigger and better wind turbines. The material is at the center of turbine development at a time when the world’s appetite for wind energy seems insatiable.