NREL takes deep dive into thermoplastic blade research for tidal energy turbines

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers have started testing thermoplastic composite blades, said to have the potential to revolutionise the marine energy industry, on a large-scale tidal power turbine.

Verdant Power’s three-turbine array mounted on TriFrame (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)
Photo showing Verdant Power’s three-turbine array mounted on TriFrame (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)
Verdant Power’s three-turbine array mounted on TriFrame (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)

NREL researchers have been exploring the use of thermoplastic composite materials for wind turbines for several years, but they have only just begun to scrape the surface of how these materials perform underwater.

Namely, in collaboration with tidal energy company Verdant Power and with the funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, NREL researchers have constructed turbine blades using thermoplastic composite materials and are now testing them on one of Verdant Power’s tidal turbines, currently deployed in New York City’s East River.

Evaluation of the loads and performance of the turbines at the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) project site in New York began in October 2020 with the installation of Verdant Power’s TriFrame mount, which holds three tidal turbines.

Because of strong tidal currents that change direction multiple times per day, the East River is an ideal location for testing and validating the performance of marine energy turbines, according to NREL.

Both the TriFrame and three-bladed turbines were designed to be modular and scalable, allowing researchers to study the 5-metre-diameter turbines and then scale them up to the more economically viable 10 to 15-metre-class turbine systems that are more likely to be used in the field.

During their first six months in the water, the tidal turbines, which initially had epoxy blades, generated almost 200MWh of energy, setting a United States record for marine energy production.

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After a six-month deployment, the Verdant Power team performed a retrieve-and-replace (R&R) operation in May 2021, swapping out one of the epoxy-bladed rotors with a new, NREL-manufactured rotor with thermoplastic blades that are identical to the original epoxy blades except for their material.

Photo showing Verdan Power's tidal turbines after an R&R operation earlier in 2021 (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)
Verdan Power’s tidal turbines after an R&R operation earlier in 2021 (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)

Benefits of thermoplastic materials for marine energy applications

Previous laboratory-scale research performed at French national institute for ocean science Ifremer demonstrated how thermoplastic materials can improve fatigue performance, decreasing the probability for catastrophic blade failures and making tidal turbine blades more sustainable for marine energy applications.

The manufacturing process is also faster and more energy efficient, NREL claims.

Additionally, thermoplastics, which make up about 75% of worldwide plastic production, can be recycled because the plastic polymer material can be remolded at high temperatures and resolidifies upon cooling.

For several months prior to the R&R deployment, NREL research engineer Robynne Murray and her team have been tapping into the manufacturing and materials characterization capabilities at NREL’s Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) facility.

There, they built the 2.5-metre blades using a vacuum infusion method with Elium thermoplastic resin. They then worked to confirm that these blades had similar structural performance to the traditional epoxy resin blades prior to deployment, structurally validating the full-scale, thermoplastic, tidal power turbine blades that are now generating power in the East River.

After its trial run ends and the blades are retrieved by the end of 2021, the team will measure the blades’ structural response to applied loads to quantify the impact of seawater on these materials.

Murray said: “Verdant Power provided the NREL team with the blade tooling and geometry details so we could produce thermoplastic blades that are identical to the epoxy blades that they’ve already manufactured, which allows us to do a side-by-side comparison with traditional materials.

“We’re really interested in using these thermoplastic materials because they could potentially prolong the life of the blades and have improved structural properties for marine applications”.

Photo showing NREL researchers connecting a tidal turbine blade to the data acquisition system for validation (Photo by Robynne Murray - NREL)
NREL researchers connect a tidal turbine blade to the data acquisition system for validation (Photo by Robynne Murray – NREL)

An NREL-built data acquisition system sits inside the tail cone of the newly installed tidal turbine, allowing researchers to measure the strain and angular position of the thermoplastic blades while in action in the East River.

The data acquisition system design and validation process, which included submerging the system in water for several days, meets several requirements, including the ability to continuously and reliably acquire, measure, and store all the data generated during the turbine’s entire deployment period—estimated to be up to 28 gigabytes, according to NREL.

“This work will demonstrate a potentially game-changing material for marine applications at a meaningful scale. It will also produce strain and acceleration data for full-scale turbines that we can use to validate design tools and de-risk future deployments, industrywide.

“The collaboration with Verdant Power and the ability to join their innovative R&R operation has been key to obtaining these data that will benefit the marine energy industry for years to come”, Murray concluded.

This summer, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) will be performing a survey of the TriFrame’s flow speeds at the RITE Project site to obtain flow data for the operational tidal turbines.

The data will be used to validate flow velocity models, which will be publicly accessible to the marine energy industry, NREL added.