Researchers in university labs work on trailblazing projects to advance the composites industry.

Wind turbines floating in the sea. Unmanned aircraft gliding through the jet stream. Solar powered cars racing more than 3,000 miles. This is not the stuff of science fiction. Universities around the globe are participating in cutting-edge research and development to make things faster, stronger, lighter and better for the environment. And they’re counting on composites to make the difference.

As students head back to classrooms this fall, Composites Manufacturing magazine profiles five university projects taking place from South Africa to the shores of Maine. Research teams are collaborating with government agencies and industry partners to create innovative new materials, process composites more efficiently and devise end uses for advanced materials only dreamed about a decade ago. Here’s a glimpse into the exciting future of our industry.

Wind on the Water

Project: Offshore wind turbine
School: The University of Maine
Location: Orono, Maine
Director: Habib Dagher

People fishing or jogging alongside the Penobscot River in Maine on May 31 were eyewitnesses to a unique event. A tugboat towed a 65-foot-tall wind turbine nearly 30 miles from Brewer to Castine, where it was anchored off the coast of the Gulf of Maine in 80-foot water. “It’s the first offshore turbine in the world with a concrete hull and a composite tower,” says Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. “Hopefully we are helping take composites to new heights.”

The VolturnUS prototype wind turbine is the culmination of more than four years of collaborative research and development conducted by the DeepCwind Consortium. Led by the University of Maine, the consortium is a public/private partnership funded by the university, the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Science Foundation, Maine Technology Institute, the State of Maine and more than 30 industry partners. The VolturnUS is 1:8th the scale of a 6-megawatt (MW), 423-foot rotor diameter design for a commercial installation. Such an installation could aid the state of Maine’s plans to produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity offshore by 2030.

The prototype – the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in North America – features a floating concrete hull and composite tower, blades and nacelles. The university developed proprietary material systems that allow the hull and tower to survive in an aggressive, corrosive environment. “The advantage of composites is durability and reduction of topside weight,” says Dagher, leader of the DeepCwind Consortium. “In the long run, these composite towers will be very large – 300 feet long and 20 feet in diameter near the bottom.”

The University of Maine constructed the hull with commercial partners, including Cianbro Corporation. The composite tower was fabricated by Ershigs in the university’s lab. The unit was then disassembled, taken to Cianbro’s facility in Brewer and reassembled with the tower placed onto the semi-submersible hull. In one lift, a crane placed the floating turbine into the Penobscot River for a 10-hour tow trip to the sea.

The VolturnUS will remain off the coast of Castine for up to a year collecting data on wind and wave environments. The unit has dozens of sensors measuring how much force the wind applies to the rotor, the motion of the unit in six different axis, the power and electrical output, how much force the mooring lines apply on the hull and more. The data is collected and reviewed daily by personnel in the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Dagher anticipates that the wind turbine’s design will increase the unit’s lifecycle. Typical offshore installations last approximately 25 years, he says. “Because our unit can be manufactured dockside, we expect to be able to tow it back to shore every 20 to 25 years, replace or work on the turbine, then tow it back to sea,” says Dagher. He expects the full-scale VolturnUS to have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years.

After this test deployment, the team will build two 6 MW floating turbines to be moored off Monhegan Island in 2016. Design is currently underway, funded in part by a $4 million grant from the DOE. The University of Maine is a finalist in the DOE’s Advanced Technology Demonstration Program for Offshore Wind competition, which will award $46 million to the winning project. Dagher expects the DOE to reach a decision in April 2014.

Dagher is excited by the potential impact of the VolturnUS on advanced materials. “This opens a big market for composites,” he says. “Blades already use composites. If we can go into towers, it presents a different exciting market for composites.”