Wind. Energy. Research.

Wind energy research consortium promotes collaboration with industry and opportunities for student research

Fotis Sotiropoulos has a picture-postcard view through a window at the U’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL). It looks out over those iconic, if not dramatic, falls that helped power Minneapolis through its early years as a milling giant.

Sotiropoulos, director of SAFL and professor of civil engineering, now has his eyes on a field of power that’s tied to our economic and environmental future—wind energy.

The University of Minnesota was one of three university-based consortia to receive a large U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wind energy research grant in 2009. As part of that, the U recently dedicated a $5.5 million wind turbine, the 2.5MW Clipper Liberty, at UMore Park in Rosemount. It’s the focal point of the budding Eolos Wind Energy Research Consortium, a unique, collaborative research effort.

"Automatically, this project puts the University of Minnesota at the leading edge of wind energy research," says Sotiropoulos.

A new beacon in the south metro

At 426 feet from base to tip of an extended blade, the wind turbine at UMore Park dwarfs everything in the vicinity but its companion meteorological tower, which aids in measuring atmospheric conditions at the site.

But what makes the turbine really stand out is its role in the next generation of wind energy research. DOE’s vision was for universities to work with industry to test ideas for wind energy improvements in the field, in addition to testing on computers or in a lab. And part of what elevated the University's proposal is the relationships it has already cultivated—or is poised to develop—with industrial partners.

Take 3M Co., which has refined the development of a thin, textured “riblet” film that, when applied to surfaces like airplanes, can reduce resistance due to friction. However, 3M discovered that oil would have to exceed $150 a barrel for it to be cost-effective to install the riblet film on airplanes.

A new use for old mines?

A new study from the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) is examining the potential re-use of abandoned open pit iron ore mines on the Mesabi Iron Range to store excess energy from wind turbines. Read more.

The University and 3M are now exploring the potential for the film to decrease resistance and increase efficiency on wind turbines, with computational and lab tests already completed.

“The next step is to actually work with the manufacturer of our wind turbine, Clipper Windpower, and 3M to figure out a way to apply this on the blades, on the actual turbine, and test it—demonstrate that it makes a difference in the actual power captured by the wind,” says Sotiropoulos.

Another University-industry project, with Lockheed Martin, is developing strategies for mitigating the effects of wind turbines on weather radar. According to Sotiropoulos, the spinning blades on turbines can create a signal that could be interpreted by nearby radars as a storm approaching.

A textbook example of experiential learning

While Eolos, named after the Greek god of wind, will naturally benefit the U's consortium partners and the field of wind energy, it also creates a ready laboratory for University of Minnesota students.

As part of the consortium effort, the U is offering a new course, Wind Energy Essentials, available to students across all departments of the College of Science and Engineering.

Wind power at Morris

In March 2005, the U's West Central Research and Outreach Center began operating a 1.65-megawatt wind turbine adjacent to the University of Minnesota, Morris. The turbine provides more than half of UMM's annual electricity needs. Read more about the Power of Wind at UMM.

"We have designed the course to provide students exposure to all elements of wind energy, from the engineering issues—how you build the machine, what the machine looks like inside, how it captures the energy—to all the socio-economic issues, like public perceptions of wind farms and the economics of wind energy,” Sotiropoulos says. “Now the students will have the opportunity to be engaged in research in a very significant way.”

They'll learn not only from University of Minnesota faculty, but also researchers from national labs and even wind farm developers. And that hands-on, cross-industry experience works for everyone.

"One of the big goals of the DOE is to develop the new generation of energy talent,” Sotiropoulos says. “It’s kind of a new field—wind energy engineering or renewable energy engineering—that’s going to become far more important in the years to come.”

For more information about the consortium partners and ongoing research projects, visit Eolos.

Consortium partners include the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, Syracuse University, Dakota County Technical College, Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, 3M, Barr Engineering, Clipper Windpower LLC., United Technologies Research Center, Lockheed Martin, Micron Optics, Ryan Companies, WindLogics, Xcel Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The College of Science and Engineering, the U’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), and UMore Park provided early-stage research funding to support consortium collaborations.