Go With the Blow

A WVU grad is rethinking the way wind turbines work.


Written by Kasey Sporck
Photo Courtesy of Dan Addison, UVA University Communications

Imagine an oak tree up against hurricane-force winds. While it’s strong and sturdy, it’s also stiff and heavy, and powerful winds can knock it down. Now imagine a palm tree in a hurricane. Palm trees are light, flexible, and better able to move with the force of hurricane winds. This is how University of Virginia Professor Eric Loth describes his plans to improve extreme-scale wind turbines. Loth says current wind turbines resemble oak trees, overly rigid and prone to damage. But he wants to make them more like palm trees, able to move with the wind. “I was inspired by the genius of nature for the concept,” Loth says.

Loth’s interest in wind turbines began when he was an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering at West Virginia University in the early 1980s. In a research project he explored how to use mountains to improve power from wind turbines. The success of this research led to his master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Loth then spent time as a professor at the University of Illinois and held a number visiting appointments at the University of Cambridge, Brown University, and others. He’s been a professor at the University of Virginia since 2010, where he serves as a Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor and chairman of the University of Virginia’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

After leaving West Virginia University, Loth became focused on airplanes and supersonic technology. But about five years ago he returned to his roots: wind turbines. He decided he wanted to do his part to help reduce carbon emissions by refining next-generation energy technologies. So he started to look at ways to improve wind turbines. “I’m doing what little I can to help the world,” he says.

The research was slowgoing, at first. Then about three years ago he developed a new idea that seemed promising, and he was able to obtain research grants to sort out the concept in more detail. Loth’s concept, in the simplest of terms, is to make a bigger wind turbine. Specifically, he wants to increase the wind turbine’s output by lengthening the blades. However, a wind turbine this big and heavy could not withstand the force of gravity. That’s why Loth also plans make his jumbo turbines lightweight, flexible, yet still very strong. This is where the palm tree comes in.

Loth calls his concept a “Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor,” or SUMR for short. The turbine blades are long, ultralight, and split into sections, held together by hinges. When wind blows hard, the blades will bend back just like the fronds on a palm tree, avoiding damage while still capturing energy. The segmented blades are also more cost efficient to transport and assemble.

Popular Science magazine recently named Roth one of its “Brilliant Minds Behind The New Energy Revolution.” He shares the honor with 11 other scientists who are working with biomass, solar, and information technology. “My area is a whole new concept. I’ve created something that strongly impacts the energy network,” Loth says.

Loth’s concept is only in computer form right now, but that’s about to change. At the end of November 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Loth’s University of Virginia team $3.5 million as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. With this funding, Loth and his team of students will design, build, and field test a scaled-down version of a SUMR turbine.

If Loth’s concept holds up to testing, he says it could greatly impact areas like the mountains of West Virginia. He’d like to see the state invest in a larger renewable energy industry, as other states are doing, to provide jobs and lower energy prices. “Coal will always be important, but West Virginia needs to diversify for the future.”

 

 

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