Hui Hu picked up a 3-D printed model of a typical wind turbine and began explaining two problems with the big, tall, three-bladed machines.
First, said the Iowa State University professor of aerospace engineering, check out the base of each blade. They’re big, round structural pieces. They’re not shaped like an airfoil. And so they don’t harvest any wind, reducing a turbine’s energy harvest by about 5 percent.
Second, the big blades disturb the wind, creating a wake behind them and reducing the energy harvest of any downwind turbines. Hu said a turbine sitting in the slipstream of another can lose 8 to 40 percent of its energy production, depending on conditions.
Those losses prompted Hu and Anupam Sharma, an Iowa State assistant professor of aerospace engineering, to look for a solution. Their data suggest they’ve found one.
Hu turned back to his wind turbine models: Look at these two, he said. See what we’ve done?
What they’ve done is add a smaller, secondary rotor. One model had three big blades and three mini-blades sprouting from the same hub. The other had a small, secondary rotor mounted in front of the big rotor, the two sets of blades separated by the nacelle that houses the generating machinery on top of the tower.
“To try to solve these problems, we put a small rotor on the turbine,” Hu said. “And we found that with two rotors on the same tower, you get more energy.”
Using lab tests and computer simulations, Hui and Sharma have found those extra blades can increase a wind farm’s energy harvest by 18 percent.
“These are fairly mature technologies we’re talking about – a 10 to 20 percent increase is a large change,” Sharma said.
Read more: Iowa State engineers study the benefits of adding a second, smaller rotor to wind turbines