Extending The Life Of Wind Turbines

Dec 16, 2016

It’s been a big week for wind energy. The nation’s first offshore wind farm is up and running off the coast of Block Island. And another Rhode Island wind company just scored a grant from the National Science FoundationAquanis is a tech company trying to improve the efficiency of wind turbines. We introduce you to the wind energy company you may not know about.

Neal Fine, founder of Aquanis, a tech startup in North Kingstown.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

The cost of wind energy is rapidly declining. It’s gone down by about 75 percent since the 1990s in large part because today’s wind turbines are bigger and more efficient.

But 75 percent is not enough, says Neal Fine, founder of Aquanis, a startup in North Kingstown. His company is developing a device to extend the life of wind turbines, which can take a beating over time. 

“Any unsteady wind causes the blades to bend, and repeated bending over time leads to structural damage and they don’t last as long,” said Fine.

The industry has to address this problem if it wants the cost of wind energy to continue to decline as it makes longer blades, adds Fine.

“What we want to do is add a technology to the blades that gives the blades a smoother ride in unsteady winds.”

Some manufacturers have been developing moveable flaps to attach to turbines – flaps like the ones airplanes use to stay stable during flights. But moving pieces come with their own challenges.

Neal Fine says his company has designed a simple and inexpensive device that can be attached to blades and help them react instantly to changes in the wind.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

It’s why Fine has designed a flat rectangular device that can be attached to wind blades and programmed to help blades react instantly to changes in the wind, like virtual flaps, so to speak. 

Fine has been doing wind tunnel testing at the University of Notre Dame and will next do full-scale demonstrations on larger wind turbines. The National Science Foundation awarded Aquanis about $225,000 to support Fine’s lab and wind tunnel testing.

Fine thinks his technology will leapfrog ahead of others, because it has no moving parts and doesn’t require manufacturers to change how they’re making wind turbines.

In Rhode Island, the Slater Technology Fund was an early supporter of this project. 

“NSF grants are terrific because they are peer-reviewed and they support the best technology out there,” said Thorne Sparkman. “So it’s nice to see that the technologists at the National Science Foundation agreed with the promise that both the Slater Tech Fund and Neal saw in this technology.”

Sparkman said the Slater Tech grant combined with the NSF grant will add the momentum Aquanis needs to tackle a big challenge in the wind energy industry. Aquanis also received a grant from the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.