Skip to Content

GE Hopes to Make Its Cloth Wind Turbine Idea Fly

Advanced materials and smart design could lower turbine blade costs by 40 percent.
December 12, 2012

GE hopes to make wind turbines far cheaper, and open up new ways to design them, by ditching the stiff fiberglass blades it uses now in favor of turbine blades made out of fabric. GE says the project, which recently received nearly $4 million from the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, could lower wind turbine blade costs by 40 percent.

Cloth blade: This illustration shows what a cross section of GE’s fabric blades might look like. The fabric will be stretched over a composite frame (light gray) and central spar (yellow and green).

One way to reduce the cost of wind power is to make larger turbines. But as the blades have been getting larger, the costs of making them have been rising as well, says Wendy Lin, a principal engineer at GE. That’s offsetting some of the advantages of bigger turbines. “We know we really need to make a drastic change in the way we make these blades to bring the cost of the system down,” she says.

GE intends to use a fabric that’s significantly different from the durable fabrics used now in architecture (such as for the roof of the Denver airport) or for gliders. Such projects use polyester, which wouldn’t be durable enough for wind turbines, Lin says. Instead, GE plans to use glass-based fabrics. Indeed, even current fiberglass wind turbine blades start with glass cloth. The blades are made stiff by cementing the fabric with stiff plastic resin. GE plans to use a soft, rubbery resin instead, allowing the fabric to retain some flexibility. That flexibility will make it more resilient than stiff fiberglass, which will in turn allow GE to use less material, reducing materials costs and weight.

The design calls for a frame that’s similar to the spars and ribs used in airplane wings. The fabric is stretched over that frame. This structure could be far cheaper to manufacture than fiberglass blades, which require forms that are so large that workers walk inside them to lay down layers of glass fiber. There’s plenty of room for error in this labor-intensive process, so highly skilled, expensive workers are needed.

The new design won’t require large, expensive forms, and the blades could be made in a more automated fashion.

If GE can reduce the cost of the blades by 40 percent, it would lower overall wind turbine costs by as much as 10 percent. The benefits may go beyond this cost reduction, since the fabric-based blades could allow for new designs, including blades that change shape to accommodate changing wind conditions. The new manufacturing methods would also eliminate the restrictions on blade size imposed by the difficulty of transporting long, wide blades, making larger wind turbines practical (see “A Mighty Wind Turbine” and “Building Bigger, Better Wind Turbines”). GE says it might eventually assemble the blades on site rather than in a factory.

Under the ARPA-E program, GE will determine how best to fabricate the blades, looking at issues such as how to attach the fabric to the frame. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park to make this work,” Lin says. “But we’ve identified the risks.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Russian servicemen take part in a military drills
Russian servicemen take part in a military drills

How a Russian cyberwar in Ukraine could ripple out globally

Soldiers and tanks may care about national borders. Cyber doesn't.

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

ai learning to multitask concept
ai learning to multitask concept

Meta’s new learning algorithm can teach AI to multi-task

The single technique for teaching neural networks multiple skills is a step towards general-purpose AI.

mouse engineered to grow human hair
mouse engineered to grow human hair

Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way

These biotech companies are reprogramming cells to treat baldness, but it’s still early days.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.