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Sandia wants to make giant wind turbines twice the size of football fields

When life gives you hurricanes, make wind energy. Mother Nature rarely displays her power more violently than during one of these destructive storms, but now scientists are learning how to create a silver lining in the angry clouds. Sandia National Laboratories has proposed a “new design for gigantic blades longer than two football fields” that might be able to “bring offshore 50-megawatt (MW) wind turbines to the United States and the world.” Featuring 200 meter blades, these turbines are actually foldable to prevent hurricane force winds from completely destroying the blades, and if effective, would be able to generate enough power to provide energy to some 10,000 homes.

Sandia’s concept, which was funded by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, involves a series of 200-meter blades, which would combine to create the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR), described as “a new low-cost offshore 50-MW wind turbine.” When winds are at their peak, the blades would be stowed and align themselves with, rather than against, the wind, “reducing the risk of damage.” But during less trying times, these enormous blades would extend to their full potential, thereby maximizing energy production.

“Exascale turbines take advantage of economies of scale,” said Todd Griffith, lead blade designer on the project and technical lead for Sandia’s Offshore Wind Energy Program. Currently, American wind turbines manage to produce only 1 to 2MW, with the largest able to produce around 8MW with 80-meter long blades. But this new design would truly dwarf all others, even Sandia’s own 13MW system on which this new system is based.

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Thus far, the U.S. has not been able to capitalize upon the offshore wind capabilities readily available to renewable energy experts, but Sandia hopes that the new turbines may fill a gaping need.

“Conventional upwind blades are expensive to manufacture, deploy and maintain beyond 10-15 MW,” Griffith said. But if the SUMR proves successful, everything we know about energy may be ready to change.

These monster turbines are still in a design phase, so don’t expect to see anything constructed offshore just yet. But it’s certainly one of the most exciting wind-based ideas to date, and should get us close to the DOE’s plan to have wind power 20 percent of the country’s electricity by 2030.